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When Cambodia cries wolf

Cambodia knows exactly when and where to hit Thailand to inflict the most pain on its neighbour to the east. Repeated attempts by Phnom Penh to raise the Preah Vihear dispute at the international level in forums such as the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement - which were subsequently withdrawn - shows a lack of sincerity and ill intentions. At a meeting in Singapore, Asean took the unprecedented step of discussing the temple dispute but without any progress.

It was out of Asean goodwill and the good office of the previous chair, Singapore, that both sides were able to discuss the problem against the backdrop of the Asean meeting.

When members have bilateral problems, especially over sensitive issues concerning sovereignty, they should resolve them in an amicable way without being aggressive or using strong diplomatic language.

In Singapore, the Cambodian delegation left its mark with strong words of condemnation for Thailand over the controversy. The Thai delegation, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Sahas Banditkul, was calm and mature. Sahas did not respond to the Cambodian tirade. Several Asean members have expressed concerns over the rough way the Cambodian delegate dealt with the issue.

After the end of the Asean meeting, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo wrote a letter to his Cambodian counterpart, Hor Namhong, expressing concerns about the creditability of Asean as Cambodia has insisted that it would seek the intervention of the UN Security Council. Since both countries are members of Asean, any dispute between them should be settled bilaterally. Instead, Cambodia has tried to score points internationally by portraying the country as a victim of intimidation by a bigger and more prosperous neighbour. Asean wants all of its members to discuss and solve problems in the spirit of the grouping.

Cambodia's desire to internationalise the issue helps to show its true intention to tarnish Thailand's reputation. Of course, there is nothing Thailand can do at the moment as its domestic situation in recent years has been rather damning. Cambodia's approach would work if Thailand really were a bully. Look around, Thailand has been reduced to a small and non-significant player since 2001. Our reputation overseas has sunk to its lowest level ever. Instead of helping Thailand to settle the dispute amicably, those in Cambodia's upper echelon have instead decided that now is the best time to teach Thailand a lesson.

Several Asean members and dialogue partners have confided to the Foreign Ministry that they do not support Cambodia's efforts to push the temple dispute to the UN level. A member of the Security Council said that any internationalised issue would impact on Asean as a whole.

For the next 18 months, Thailand will serve as the chair of Asean. Cambodia's attitude will be crucial and should be closely scrutinised, as it will have far-reaching ramifications for the future of Asean.

If Cambodia continues to threaten to use the UN and Non-Aligned Movement forums, it would certainly hamper the effectiveness of the Thai chairmanship of Asean.

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