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Thai-Cambodia conflict: Realpolitik calls for dose of caution

Updated On: Feb 23, 2011

This article was featured in the South China Morning Post and TODAY (Singapore) newspapers on 22 Feb 2011.

Shelling and shots on the Thai-Cambodian border this month have inflicted casualties and deaths among soldiers as well as civilians. Voices call for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to intervene. At its ministerial meeting today, the regional group must be seen to do something or lose credibility as a security community.

Realism is needed, however. We need to see why violence has flared repeatedly since 2008, when Khmer ownership of the Preah Vihear temple has been recognised since 1962, and understand why Cambodia seeks intervention while Thailand prefers bilateral discussions. Only then can Asean know what best to do, rather than try to be a mini UN Security Council.

The reality is that the Preah Vihear temple is the focal point and not the primary cause. Nor is it ancient animosity. This flare-up is fuelled by current domestic politics.

This is especially true in Thailand, coloured by the red and yellow shirts and other factions. In Cambodia, the Hun Sen government seeks a wider influence and is mobilising around the issue.
Thai politics first. In 2008, after Unesco listed the temple as a world heritage site, yellow shirts used the issue as a nationalistic rallying point for a significant step in pushing out the pro-Thaskin government.

The Democrat-led alliance that took over has now been in office for more than two years, and elections are expected by June. In this increasingly charged atmosphere, seven Thais - including Democrat MP Panich Vikitsreth - visited the area in December. When Cambodian authorities arrested them for allegedly crossing the border, this rekindled the issue.

What motivates Cambodia is harder to read. Personal reasons play a part. Rumours circulate that Prime Minister Hun Sen remains close to his ousted Thai counterpart Thaskin Shinawatra. There is also a patriotic gloss. Hun Sen's party played up Preah Vihear, too, to increase electoral support. The administration has been trying to garner international support as the "victim" and has invited regional or international intervention.

If Cambodia secures a diplomatic victory, this burnishes Hun Sen's nationalistic credentials and strengthens his international standing. Conversely, if the Abhisit government "loses", it could weaken the Democrats considerably.

What, then, can Asean do? It must discuss the issue for its credibility and can help the process. But, realistically, results will be limited when the two sides have reasons of realpolitik to continue bickering. Non-intervention in the domestic affairs of the state remains a cardinal principle in the Asean Charter and there are clearly domestic factors at play. If Asean forgets this and over-reaches, this will be regretted later.

Like two fighting students brought before the class monitor, Thailand and Cambodia may be cajoled to continue the tenuous ceasefire. But as long as domestic imperatives dictate, no lasting peace is possible and Asean should not pretend otherwise.

Simon Tay