Source: reuters // Reuters
By Martin Petty
BANGKOK, May 4 (Reuters) - A bloody conflict between Thai and Cambodian forces has added another twist to Thailand's political crisis, and not without benefit to Cambodian strongman, Hun Sen.
Regardless of which side fired first, the border battles have handed Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) a chance to score points at home by taking a stand against an eternal rival he accuses of flexing its superior military muscle.
On the surface, the latest flare-up is a fight over a stretch of border close to Tan Moan and Tan Krabey, two 12th century Hindu temples both sides lay claim to. So far, 18 people on both sides have been killed in 12 days of gunfights, grenades and artillery bombardments that have displaced 65,000 people.
Analysts say political factions on both sides of the frontier have something to gain from prolonging the fight and scuttling a fragile ceasefire agreed between the two armies.
The clashes have struck a chord with Cambodians and Hun Sen's efforts to internationalise the issue by calling for help from the United Nations, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the International Court of Justice have helped stoke nationalist fervour. [ID:nLDE74120S]
"This conflict is being played to the full extent by Hun Sen and with this tough stance he will seek to gain as much status as he can from this," said Ian Bryson, a Southeast Asia analyst at consultants Control Risks.
"The CPP government recognises that the sovereignty issue is a vehicle for popularity that has almost become policy and gives it a mandate for its rule."
Conspiracy theorists suggest hawkish Thai generals in cahoots with conservative nationalists could be fuelling the conflict to delay an election expected by early July, or even to create a pretext for a coup, to prevent the opposition Puea Thai Party from forming the next government. [ID:nL3E7FS01Q]
Thai officials reject that claim. Some privately point the finger at Hun Sen, suggesting it's in his interest to discredit Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ahead of the election. [ID:nL3E7G204T]
Hun Sen, 60, has made no secret of his annoyance at Thailand's heel-dragging on demarcating disputed stretches of their shared 800-km (500-mile) land border and 27,000 square km (10,400 sq miles) of maritime territory believed to contain offshore oil reserves. A joint border commission has carried out studies since 2000 but no agreement has been reached.
Neither has the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla sought to hide his loathing for Abhisit's Democrat Party-led government, which last week he called "thieves" and "terrorists".
Under Abhisit, Thailand has sought to derail Cambodia's listing of a far more significant Hindu border temple, Preah Vihear, as a UNESCO World Heritage site. A 1962 World Court ruling awarded the temple to Cambodia but Thailand says the land around the ruins was never demarcated.
Clashes in that area from Feb. 4-7 killed three Thai and eight Cambodian troops. There was also some fighting near this temple in the latest flare-up.
Hun Sen said last week he was willing to work with Thailand's "next government", interpreted as a show of support for Puea Thai, allied to his exiled friend and former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
But most analysts play down any Cambodian motivation to meddle in Thailand's internal crisis, despite Hun Sen's thumbing his nose at Abhisit by briefly hiring Thaksin as an economic adviser in 2009 and refusing to extradite him to serve a prison term for graft.
Thaksin also has much to lose by being seen as close to Hun Sen at this time, if nationalist sentiment rises in Thailand.
Thai generals point out that the fighting coincides with the promotion of Hun Sen's eldest son, Hun Manet, to a two-star general and deputy commander of the country's infantry in what many Cambodians see as a tentative step towards a political dynasty in a country run by the same man for 26 years. [ID:nSGE70D05K]
With a doctorate in economics from Britain's Bristol University and having graduated from West Point military academy in the United States, many analysts suggest 33-year-old Hun Manet is being groomed as a successor and say the Thai conflict gives him a chance to assert himself within Cambodia's military.
Others say the clashes are helping to draw attention away from rising discontent in Cambodia over forced evictions to make way for development projects, labour and trade union disputes and tough laws virtually outlawing protests. [ID:nSGE72604R]
"The dispute, by fanning nationalist flames in Cambodia as well, distracts from other pressing problems," said Joshua Kurlantzick of the U.S-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank. "With Cambodia's domestic troubles unlikely to disappear, Preah Vihear probably will not either," he said in a blog post.
The issue is expected to be a hot topic at an ASEAN summit in Jakarta this weekend. Cambodia has rejected bilateral talks and is insisting on third-party mediation, a move that has riled Thailand and suggests to some analysts that Hun Sen's government is in no rush to find a solution.
"Cambodia's motivations are probably much simpler," Eurasia Group analyst Roberto Herrera-Lim said in a research note.
"Hun Sen scores political points domestically by standing up to what he would like Cambodians to see as a bullying Thailand, as long as the military losses are small and the outcome is inconclusive." (Editing by Alan Raybould and Miral Fahmy)