by Martin Abbugao
JAKARTA, May 5, 2011 (AFP) - A bloody border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia looks set to dominate an ASEAN summit in Indonesia this weekend, casting doubt on the bloc's rhetoric about regional integration by 2015.
Analysts and diplomats said the fighting, which has left at least 18 people dead since April 22, is expected to be a key topic at the two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta from Saturday.
Current ASEAN chair Indonesia has been leading mediation efforts, but although the fighting has eased the situation remains tense and deadly firefights break out almost daily.
"The Thai-Cambodia border dispute poses a definite challenge to ASEAN's credibility and its objective of creating an ASEAN Community by 2015," said Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales in Australia.
"ASEAN's failure to broker a political solution will have a very negative impact on ASEAN's credibility as a viable regional organisation," he told AFP.
But Thayer said Indonesia can use the opportunity to play a "continuing proactive diplomatic role" while other ASEAN states can pressure Bangkok and Phnom Penh to negotiate a settlement.
A diplomatic source said ASEAN leaders would call on Bangkok and Phnom Penh to resolve the conflict, which has displaced 85,000 civilians on both sides.
The warring neighbours agreed at a special ASEAN ministerial meeting in Jakarta in February to accept Indonesian military observers at the border.
At the time, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan hailed the agreement as a "historic day" for the 10-nation bloc, but more than two months and a lot more fighting later, the observers remain in Jakarta.
"You must give credit to what ASEAN is trying to do," Surin told AFP on Wednesday, adding that February's meeting of foreign ministers and his personal mediation efforts were unprecedented for the trade-focused grouping.
"We are, I think, turning a page. We are making a giant leap forward by taking those steps. It's not going to be easy, it's not going to be resolved tomorrow."
A diplomatic briefing paper for one summit participant said ASEAN risked putting its "community-building efforts in jeopardy" if it fails to respond adequately to such bilateral disputes.
The paper said intra-regional clashes would not go well for "ASEAN's peace and stability or its credibility". How it responds is a "litmus test" for ASEAN's "ability to contribute to international peace and security", it added.
US-based Southeast Asia specialist Ernest Bower said the Thailand-Cambodia conflict "undercuts the ASEAN leaders' vision for regional integration by 2015".
ASEAN, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, is aiming for an integrated community by 2015 covering economic, cultural, political and security ties.
Bower cautioned the bloc against using the Thai-Cambodia spat as an excuse for slow progress on "hard issues key to real economic integration".
"The conflict also belies ASEAN's hope of projecting a cohesive region to potential international investors," said Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
ASEAN members are bound by a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which forbids the threat or the actual use of force in intra-regional disputes.
The bloc's first charter, or constitution, which came into force with much fanfare in 2008, has provisions for settling rows which are being sorely tested by the ongoing border spat.
"What ASEAN does now will impact on its role in dispute settlement among its members for a long time to come," Thayer said.
ASEAN's hands are often tied by its core principle of non-interference in members' domestic affairs, which means the group can only intervene with the consent of the involved parties.
In the Thai-Cambodia dispute, "ASEAN has to walk on eggshells" so as not to be seen as interfering, Thayer said.