Sunday, 1 May 2011

Domestic politics driving border battles

via CAAI

Upcoming elections in both countries are helping to fuel the fighting, say analysts

Published: 1/05/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

When the latest military clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops broke out, many were surprised they took place so far from the disputed area around Preah Vihear temple. The artillery and gunfire exchanges which have killed and wounded soldiers on both sides are centred about 140km away in Surin province and Cambodia's Oddar Meanchey province, near another disputed area which includes Ta Kwai and Ta Muen Thom temples.

Thai military sources say a signal that hostilities might move to the west emerged over the Songkran holiday, when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's son, Maj Gen Hun Manet, reportedly made a visit to an area near Ta Kwai and Ta Muen Thom temples on the Cambodian side. The temples are located in ''no-man's land'' claimed by both sides.

The military sources say Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh and other senior military officers were also present at the site where Thai soldiers were deployed only 50-100m from Cambodian soldiers. It is rumoured that Major Gen Hun Manet is hatching plans to take over 14 temples in disputed regions along the Thai-Cambodia border before the rainy season to raise his popularity and assure a smooth succession when power is eventually handed over to him.

The Thai military sources say that during this time women and children _ possibly soldiers' families _ were brought into the disputed areas by the Cambodians, especially around Preah Vihear, possibly intended as ''human shields''. Later, some of the Cambodian forces, along with civilians, were reportedly redeployed to Ta Kwai and Ta Muen Thom temples. The sources conclude that Hun Sen plans to worsen the border situation to justify outside intervention, not just from Asean, but also the United Nations Security Council.

''Everything is up to Hun Sen,'' said the 2nd Army's Lt Gen Thawatchai Samutsakorn, commanding troops in the fighting area. ''He is the one who issues all orders in Cambodia. The military officers on both sides know each other and don't want to fight. But as Hun Sen orders them to fight, they have to do it.''

Meanwhile, Cambodian officials staunchly maintain that Thai troops started the latest round of hostilities. With both sides claiming the other is the aggressor, some analysts look to domestic politics for a possible motive. New elections are planned in both countries in the coming months.

Ian Storey, a fellow at the Singapore-based Southeast Asian Studies, and editor of the journal Contemporary Southeast Asia, said it is apparent that political factors are playing a role in these latest clashes. In the case of Cambodia, said Mr Storey, it is obvious that Hun Sen once again wants to use the border conflict to rally popularity among Cambodians. What is more interesting is Thailand, he said, remarking that it is obvious that the army now is calling the shots rather than Thai ministers in the handling of the border situation.

He said that amid efforts to resolve the conflict with Asean's participation, it was obvious that the army is more vocal than the government and taking a leading role. When the army rejected Asean's plan for Indonesian mediation, the Thai government, including the PM, could do nothing but go along.

Mr Storey said a prolonged conflict might undermine Asean, but added: ''I cannot see that the issue will be resolved soon. The tension will continue for some time, perhaps, after the elections, especially in Thailand.''

Dr Storey's analysis was echoed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' regional strategic and political studies programme. Mr Pavin, who has written extensively on the border conflict, said that when considering who might gain politically, the Thai government and military were prime candidates.

He said a lengthy conflict along the border could affect the timing of the Thai elections as the government would be too busy resolving more important issues. Prolonged fighting would also allow the military to increase its influence in the name of protecting national interests. This is a crucial point at a time when Thai politics is so unstable, he said. Mr Pavin said the military might be in a difficult situation if a new government did not give it strong backing.

On the other hand, Mr Pavin agreed with the Thai military assessment that Hun Sen and his son also have much to gain from the conflict. Cambodia also looks to have its territorial claims strengthened as it seems much of the international community is siding with Thailand's neighbour. This will be reinforced if Thailand persists in resisting international participation in resolving the disputes, he said.

Whatever happens, it seems Cambodia will be the ultimate winner, said Mr Pavin. He added that Asean is facing a real test of its credibility as a viable regional organisation.

Recent developments indicate that Cambodia also feels it has the advantage, as Dr Pavin suggests. A statement from the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, dated April 29, 2011 said that the government of Cambodia had submitted a request to the International Court of Justice for interpretation of its judgment in 1962 on Preah Vihear Temple. It further said ''this submission has been prompted by Thailand's repeated armed aggression to exert its claims on Cambodian territory, on the basis of its own unilateral ownership, which has no legal basis''.

The fighting may have broken out many kilometres away, but it seems that the Preah Vihear temple is still at the centre of the storm.

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