By Mick Elmore and Robert Carmichael
Apr 27, 2011
Bangkok/Phnom Penh - In the absence of credible information on why Thai and Cambodian forces started fighting along a disputed stretch of the border last week, the rumour mills are working overtime, but the message seems aimed at domestic audiences.
Since Friday, at least 14 people have been killed and more than 50 injured in on-and-off clashes near several disputed temples.
One question is the timing. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva plans to dissolve parliament in early May and call an election, fuelling speculation that some political faction might try to gain from the conflict. Another is that the military wants to control the poll's outcome and the fighting is their way to be in charge. And those are just the least outlandish takes on the situation from Bangkok.
Lawmaker and political observer Kraisak Chohoven said he believes motives other than election considerations had to be behind the conflict. But as so often in recent years, Thai domestic politics muddy any examination of the border strife.
The close relationship between former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, for example, has been a thorn in the side of the current government in Bangkok.
Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 coup and lives in exile to avoid a Thai jail sentence for corruption. Last year, he served as an advisor to Hun Sen's government, which ignored Thai extradition requests.
Thaksin's supporters say Abhisit's government has no legitimacy because it was not elected, and hope to return to power.
The People's Alliance for Democracy, a nationalist movement, has vowed to topple Abhisit for his poor handling of the border crisis. In December, seven nationalists were arrested for illegally crossing into Cambodia. The tussle about their release further soured bilateral relations.
The Thai Foreign Ministry insists the current situation benefits no one in Thailand and accuses Cambodia of having kicked off the most recent spat.
The main conflict surrounding Preah Vihear, an 11th-century Hindu temple, goes back decades. A spat in 1958 prompted the suspension of diplomatic ties, but can be traced back to 1904 when France demarcated the border and put Preah Vihear inside its colonial territory.
Back then Thailand had more pressing concerns, such as not being colonized itself. But many Thais never accepted a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that said the temple compound belonged to Cambodia.
Bangkok says UNESCO escalated the conflict in 2008 by designating Preah Vihear a world heritage site, over its objections.
In Cambodia, the opinion prevails that Thai domestic politics, currently 'very strained' with rumours of a coup seldom far from the surface, drive the conflict.
'Thailand's national elections are coming soon and the government would want to get the border issue in order before the election, because doing so would mean a likelier chance that the current government would win,' said Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a non-governmental organization.
He said Cambodia, a much weaker player than Thailand, is looking to boost its image in the region and trying to show it can stand up to its more powerful neighbour.
On the domestic front, the ruling Cambodian People's Party regularly trumpets that it brought peace to the country after years of war.
With local elections due next year and a general election scheduled for 2013, Chhaya Hang said the border conflict has provided the government with the chance to show the electorate that it can defend the country.
But too strong a focus on the borders could backfire. Cambodia is currently demarcating its eastern border with Vietnam, and some farmers claimed to have lost their land in the process.
The risk for the ruling party is that accentuating the border issue could rebound when it is time to vote in 2013.
Indonesia, as the current chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), has failed to mediate between the neighbours.
Chhaya Hang said it was difficult to say whether that lack of leverage would damage the body, but suggests ASEAN should at least be able to employ a 'red card' should a member stand in the way of a solution.
'And if cancelling membership isn't (in the charter), then something for the agenda of the next ASEAN meeting could be: How much should we ASEAN members put up with this?'
With tensions high and rhetoric being ratcheted up over the past days, Chhaya Hang believes the situation remains dangerous.
'One can only hope it won't be more serious than at present because that will have a huge impact on people on both sides, and we don't want that,' he said.