Saturday, July 26, 2008

Standoff mired in history

Thai Takes

PERCHED on the edge of a 525m-high cliff that divides Thailand and Cambodia is the ancient Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, which has become the setting of a border confrontation between the two countries.

Days after Unesco designated Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site on July 8, Bangkok and Phnom Penh deployed hundreds of heavily-armed soldiers around the contentious temple that the Thais call Pra Viharn.

Ownership of the 900-year-old temple has been in dispute since the French withdrew from Indochina in the 1950s. In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded the disputed temple, easily accessible only from the Thai side, to Cambodia.

At the centre of the military build-up is a 4.6-square-kilometre overlapping area around the temple that is claimed by both countries.

The build-up began on July 15 when three Thais protesters (who Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej described as “crazy guys”) jumped over a barbed-wire fence to cross into the area, vowing to reclaim the temple that they say belong to Thailand.

Cambodian guards detained the protesters and Thailand sent its troops to retrieve them.

The military standoff between the two neighbouring Asean countries, according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, a military analyst at Chulalongkorn University, centres on three key issues:

> The listing of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site;

> Domestic instability spurring nationalism fervour in both countries (in Thailand, the Samak government is facing a concerted campaign by the People’s Alliance for Democracy to bring it down, and, in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party is seeking a fresh mandate in national elections tomorrow); and,

> The weakening of Thailand’s national unity and the strengthening of Cambodia’s national unity and economy giving Phnom Penh the confidence to push for territories over which it has long-standing disputes with Bangkok.

The number of soldiers currently amassed in the vicinity of Preah Vihear Temple varies with which government spokesman you talk to.

Cambodia says it has deployed 800 soldiers against 3,000 Thai soldiers while Thailand claims to have 400 men facing 1,700 Cambodian soldiers.

And depending on which day you read the newspapers, the situation on the ground fluctuates from “an imminent state of war” (to quote Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong) to a picnic.

On July 18, AFP reported that Cambodian and Thai soldiers pointed their weapons at each other for the first time over a tense land dispute on their border.

Four days later, Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat told Reuters: “It is a peaceful military stand-off. It is like a picnic. They chat together and lunch together.”

Will this military standoff lead to war?

Unlikely, says Panitan. “(Thailand's and Cambodia’s) top commanders have agreed to solve the situation without using any force,” he notes.

However, he acknowledges that, “on the ground, it is not easy to control the troops”.

“Hopefully,” he adds, “there will be no untoward incident such as an unknown militia attacking (the other side).”

Or, a careless statement, which can escalate tensions between Thailand and Cambodia.

In 2003, a false report in a Khmer newspaper quoting a Thai actress as saying that Angkor Wat belonged to her country sparked anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh. The Thai embassy and Thai businesses were torched.

One cool cat in the armed standoff is Samak. On Wednesday, the Thai prime minister predicted that tensions would ease after Cambodia’s general election tomorrow.

“After the election they will soften their stance, and talks will be easier,” Samak said.

“Everything is being done with an eye on the July 27 polls, and I need to keep quiet so as not to discredit prime minister Hun Sen.”

The next day, Thailand and Cambodia agreed to send their foreign ministers to Siem Reap next Monday to discuss a resolution to the border conflict.

Interestingly, Thailand is without a foreign minister as Noppadon Pattama was recently forced to resign for mishandling the Preah Vihear temple issue.

Panitan, the military analyst, warns that finding a resolution is not going to be an easy task, because Bangkok still does not have a real plan for an exit strategy.

“Who will withdraw their troops first?” he asks.

“Will it be a bilateral withdrawal? If it is a unilateral withdrawal, the other side can claim they are victorious.”

(Published in The Star on July 26, 2008)