Thailand-Cambodia Tensions Reveal ASEAN’s Limitations
Thailand-Cambodia Tensions Reveal ASEAN’s Limitations
Roberto Tofani – World Politics Review
A deadly clash between Thai and Cambodian troops along the border near the Preah Vihear temple has renewed long-running tension between the two Southeast Asian neighbors. The fresh conflict poses a serious threat to bilateral relations and could be exploited, especially in Thailand, in domestic leadership struggles. The dispute has also revealed the limitations of important organizations like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The recent confrontation claimed the lives of three Thai and five Cambodian soldiers, and according to local NGOs forced more than 25,000 people to flee their homes amid fears of further violence. Unconfirmed reports said that there were “more than 70 killed in Cambodia,” including Maj. Gen. Hun Manet, the son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The temple itself was seriously damaged by artillery during the exchange of fire on the border, the latest in a long series of sporadic skirmishes over the past three years.
The confrontation between the two armies along the border dates back to the summer of 2008, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the 11th-century Hindu temple a World Heritage site following a request from the Cambodian government.
At the heart of the problem is the territorial dispute over the surrounding region itself. A joint commission in 1904 set the border between the two countries atop the Dangrek mountain range, where the temple is located. A subsequent map, drawn up in 1907, put Preah Vihear in Cambodia.
When Cambodia achieved independence from France in 1954, Thai forces occupied the temple. In response, Cambodia took its case to the International Court of Justice, which in 1962 gave the temple and roughly 1.8 square miles of nearby land back to Cambodia. Thailand claims an agreed-upon demarcation process has not yet been completed.
In 2008, Noppadon Pattama, a former Thai foreign minister and legal adviser to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, supported Cambodia’s bid to seek World Heritage status for the Preah Vihear temple, and an agreement between the two countries was signed in June 2008. But on July 8 of that year, the same day that UNESCO began its annual meeting in Canada, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that Noppadon and the entire cabinet had violated the Thai constitution by failing to seek parliamentary approval for the deal.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, Hun Sen exploited the temple issue in a bid to build support before the parliamentary elections held in July 2008, basing a major part of his electoral campaign on nationalistic feelings to divert voters from domestic issues. The elections produced a strong majority for his party, the Cambodian People’s Party, which won 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly.
From July to October 2008, both countries increased troop numbers along the border until a serious clash occurred in mid-October.
Following that clash, the leader of Thailand’s Democrat party and former leader of the opposition, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was appointed and sworn in as prime minister, together with a new cabinet, on Dec. 17, 2008. The two sides subsequently tried to resolve the dispute through meetings and diplomatic channels, but fighting between the troops erupted in April 2009 and again in January and April 2010. During the latest round of violence, Thai officials were in Cambodia seeking a resolution to the dispute.
The Thai People’s Alliance for Democracy, or Yellow Shirts as they are commonly known, are fierce supporters of Thailand’s claim to the temple and have been using the issue to press a nationalist agenda. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told World Politics Review that the royalist Yellow Shirts could also use the issue to work with the military to weaken the Abhisit government.
According to media reports, the problems will not affect trade between the two countries. Thailand’s central bank says its $265 billion economy, Southeast Asia’s second biggest, will not suffer because exports to Cambodia are worth less than 1 percent of GDP. Nevertheless, the value of trade between the two countries increased to $2.56 billion in 2010, from $1.67 billion in 2009, and Cambodian exports to Thailand actually rose 176 percent during the same period.
In the broader regional context, this dispute exposes the limits of ASEAN, of which both countries are members. While ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan urged the two states to find a peaceful solution, Hun Sen called for an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting. At the moment, the ASEAN chair, held by Indonesia, has been invited to attend a Feb. 14 meeting with Cambodia and Thailand at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Regardless of the meeting’s outcome, ASEAN’s lack of a sanctions system for members who violate the principles of its charter remains a problem. As stipulated in Article 22, “Member states shall endeavor to resolve peacefully all disputes in a timely manner through dialogue, consultation and negotiation, and ASEAN shall maintain and establish dispute settlement mechanisms in all fields of ASEAN cooperation.” But the organization has historically given higher priority to its policy of non-intervention in member states’ affairs.
While ASEAN’s most important goal remains trade and economic integration, with a view to creating an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015, it will also find it increasingly necessary in the coming years to enhance political and social integration among member states.
Abhisit has already made clear that he would prefer to address the dispute as a bilateral one, while Hun Sen, calling for an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting, wants to internationalize it. But in the absence of a stronger conflict-resolution mechanism, including measures to sanction charter violations, ASEAN enjoys little credibility as a mediator, and will remain on the sidelines of this dispute, as well as future ones.
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