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Monday, July 30, 2012

Despite troop pullout, Preah Vihear rift damps outlook for improved Thai-Cambodian ties

Special to The Japan Times

KYOTO — On July 18, Thailand and Cambodia pulled their troops back from the disputed border area around Preah Vihear, a ninth-century Hindu temple. The two countries have been at a standoff around the temple for several years and there have been several military confrontations.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which both are members, quickly celebrated the troops' withdrawal.

The 10-member ASEAN has been keen to mediate the conflict partly as a means of protecting its own reputation and credibility. But this only represents a short-term solution. The crux of the problem lies with Thai domestic politics.

When enemies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, led by the yellow-shirt royalists and the Democrat Party, saw the opportunity to politicize the Preah Vihear issue to undermine Thaksin's proxies, they accused Thaksin of sacrificing Thai territory in exchange for selfish business gains in Cambodia.

In 1962, Thailand and Cambodia had taken their dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which in the end ruled in the latter's favor. Today, the relentless conflict is not so much about which country has sovereign rights over Preah Vihear, but rather which owns the 4.6-square-km area around the temple.

Although bilateral relations have greatly improved with the premiership of Yingluck, Thaksin's sister, Cambodia has not given up on its bid to have the 1962 ICJ verdict reinterpreted in its favor regarding ownership of the disputed area. It is expected that the ICJ will rule on the reinterpretation by yearend — an event that could potentially shift the state of this bilateral relationship once again.

This is not the first time that Cambodia has turned to the ICJ to pressure Thailand. In 2011, the Cambodian government complained to the ICJ of Thai encroachment on its claimed territory.

As a result, the ICJ announced that "Both parties must immediately withdraw their military personnel currently present in the provisional demilitarized zone, then refrain from any military presence within that zone and from any armed activity directed at that zone."

That event, for many observers, put Thailand in a more disadvantageous position, for the ICJ had prescribed a provisional demilitarized zone that not only overlaps with areas surrounding the temple that Thai and Cambodia originally claimed to own but also extends farther into Thai territory.

The ICJ's order certainly intensified the crisis in Thailand as the military refused to comply with it, an approach that was in conflict with that of the government and the Foreign Ministry.

From the perspective of the ICJ, the setting up of the demilitarized zone could have been seen as a renewed invitation to Thailand and Cambodia to enter into negotiations without the presence of both countries' armies. It also offered an opportunity for Indonesia, as ASEAN chair last year, to intervene in the conflict and to monitor the withdrawal of troops on behalf of ASEAN.

ICJ sent out a clear message that the conflict would be better dealt with at the regional, not international, level.

Back in Thailand, the protracted internal conflict has continued to challenge the Yingluck government in fully normalizing Thai relations with Cambodia.

Although Yingluck paid an official visit to Phnom Penh in September 2011 and promised to urgently resolve the existing bilateral problems, the internal crisis, especially the unstable relationship between her government and the army, has delayed Thai efforts.

It is true that key bilateral cooperative frameworks have been reconvened under the Yingluck government. For example, the 8th General Border Committee meeting was held Dec. 19-20 (2011), and the 5th Joint Border Committee on Feb.13-14. The two meetings discussed issues concerning border demarcation and surveys of remaining border pillars in areas outside the Preah Vihear Temple region. In reality, there has been no tangible progress.

The secretary of state of the Cambodian Defense Ministry, General Neang Phat, voiced his concern about the delay on Thailand's part that could interrupt the improved atmosphere in Thai-Cambodian relations. He said, "Cambodia has already established its Joint Working Group (JWG) and is now waiting for Thailand to set up its own JWG to deal with impending issues, such as the deployment and the demarcation."

Neang Phat admitted that the tense political situation in Thailand, in which the military has been heavily involved, may be a main obstacle to the progress by the JWG establishment.

As for the road ahead, immediate apprehension seems to rest on how Thailand will respond to the imminent ICJ reinterpretation.

It is likely that, the reinterpretation will be to Cambodia's advantage once again, because of the fact that Cambodia is the rightful owner of the temple. Other important factors also play a role. For example, Cambodia has worked closely with the ICJ and the United Nations since the conflict began in 2008.

During my recent fieldwork at Preah Vihear, it was apparent that local Cambodians have comfortably settled in the disputed 4.6-square-km area. In fact, the Chinese government was financing a road construction project from the foot of Preah Vihear, on the Cambodian side, to the top of the cliff.

The unpredictability of the Thai response and especially the inability to read the mind of Thai army leaders have cast a pall over Thai-Cambodian relations.

An ICJ reinterpretation that is unfavorable for Thailand could stir up a new round of nationalistic sentiments, leading possibly to more armed clashes along the common border.

The two governments still have time to "talk with each other" to avoid such a conflict. Both should think of the long-term repercussions rather than short term gains. There will be no win-win outcome in this situation.

Cambodia might celebrate if the ICJ reinterpreted in Cambodia's favor, but it relations with Thailand will suffer. It could take several decades before the relationship becomes "normal" again.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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