Leadership needed to calm Thai-Khmer ties

opinion January 28, 2013 00:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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Current bickering between the government and the Democrat, the country's key opposition party, over the personal relationship between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thaksin Shinawatra is not healthy. Ahead of the hearing at the International Court

Under this circumstance, it would be wise for the government and opposition party to show leadership by abstaining from unconstructive remarks to ensure the country’s unity and calmness. Otherwise, a vicious cycle of daily tit-for-tat over allegations on personal ties and ulterior motives as well as future business deals over gas and oil in the Gulf of Thailand will only add more fuels to the fire. This also can easily lead to negative sentiments against each other within the country and with Cambodia. For the latter, as the long and bitter history of Thai-Cambodia attested, any accident – insignificant as it is – can quickly serve as a pretext for another completely unrelated provocation. The two countries must learn from the past experience, especially what transpired at end of January 2003, when the Thai Embassy was torched. Least, we forgot it occurred during the reign of Thaksin and his good friend and mentor, Hun Sen.

Since the Pheu Thai government came to power over a year ago, the Thai-Cambodian relations have overall improved. At the very least, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s appearance and character does not pose a threat to Hun Sen’s strong personality and aura as the region’s longest serving prime minister. Since there was no angst among the two top leaders, the tension along Thai-Cambodian border has also receded subsequently. At this juncture, both sides realized that any escalation of conflict would not help their respective positions. Over the past one year, the absence of fierce exchanged of artilleries on both sides of the border has provided some optimism about the future relations and possible joint cooperation.
 At the recent Joint Border Commission’s meeting here, Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to do a joint demining of the landmine-ridden border area followed the ICJ ruling on 18 July 2011. This is a good sign of confidence-building – something which has been lacking over the years. A Joint Working group comprised experts from Thailand Mine Action Center and Cambodia Mine Actor Center Both sides have already identified the areas in the provisional demilitarized zone where they can demine. This operation, which will begin later in February, will ascertain that when the monitoring officials from Indonesia enter the demilitarized zone, they would not be harm.
As the dialogue at the JBC level continues to make progress albeit slowly, Indonesia’s perceived role has been stagnated. Since its chair ended in 2011, Jakarta continues to follow up the Thai-Cambodian interactions as a facilitator including monitoring the provisional demilitarized zone. For the time being, both Thailand and Cambodia have not filed any complaint about the ongoing demilitarization process nor have they asked for further verification by Indonesia. Without such urgency, Indonesia remains on the side line but always on a standby if need be. As such it has raised questions concerning the effectiveness of Asean process as well as appropriate frameworks in facilitating intra-Asean conflict. With the establishment of Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation last November, Asean could further engage in researches on conflict resolution and reconciliation in the future which could be useful to pre-empt similar conflicts.
During the chair, Indonesia was very enthusiatic to go-between the two Asean protagonists, trying to reduce the temperature of Thai-Cambodian conflict within its tenure. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa should be commended for his diplomatic initiatives including shuttle diplomacy between the two capitals. Although there were no breakthroughs, the chair’s willingness to serve as the facilitator up until this moment is highly welcome. It shows that an Asean member, in time of crisis as well as in time of peace, can avail itself for the grouping’s common good.
Therefore, it is necessary for the two countries to keep cool on the border situation, pending the ICJ decision later this year. In the near term, however, the next 16 weeks ahead of the ICJ hearing they must continue to maintain the general atmosphere of calmness and stability. This would allow the ICJ to view the half century’s dispute with a fresher view and better appreciation of this important bilateral relations and the fate of one the world’s heritage most famous site. Any effort to disrupt the current status quo would render huge remifications lasting for generations to come.
For Thailand, this year could be a precarious and menacing period when emotion can run amok. Whatever the ICJ verdict, with various groups of nationalist hot heads and patriotic fronts, they can bring the country to a halt and push it on the edge of precipice. Some of them have already done serious harm to the country’s prestige and international position by calling on all Thai concerned authorities not accept the ICT decision – whatever it is. This is a no-win proposition for Thailand and only mindless nationalists of all colours and creeds would endow themselves with such righteousness.
In the past decade, Thai politics and diplomacy has been twisted and turned followed the governments that led them. There have been so many spins and disinformation perpetuated by all stakeholders. Time has come for the leaders from all parties to work together and adopt a “non-partisan” platform on this issue. Otherwise, Thailand will again make a fool of itself in the eyes of their own people and international community. Finally, Thailand must also compliance with the ICJ decision with a good faith. The country’s brinkmanship as seen and recorded in July 1962 must not be repeated again in the world today.