DEFENCE Minister Tea Banh has agreed to meet his Thai counterpart Prawit Wongsuwan “soon” to discuss a possible ceasefire following bloody clashes along the countries’ shared border, a tentative step towards peace in a conflict that otherwise appears in danger of further escalation.
“In response to a request by Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, Defence Minister Tea Banh called his Thai counterpart to say he welcomed the invitation to meet in Phnom Penh soon to discuss a ceasefire between the two countries,” the Cambodian Defence Ministry said in a statement yesterday.
Ever since deadly clashes between the two countries broke out along their shared border near Preah Vihear temple in February, Cambodia has called for a multilateral resolution to the conflict, appealing to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United Nations Security Council.
Thai leaders have been irked by these efforts, insisting that the dispute be resolved between the two countries. Prawit was quoted in the Bangkok Post yesterday as saying that he would support a bilateral meeting of defence officials to resolve the conflict and would not object to it being held in a third country. This comes in contrast to his refusal to attend a summit with Cambodian officials earlier this month that was set to be held in Indonesia, which currently holds the chair of ASEAN.
But despite these developments, other officials may be hardening their stance on the conflict, which widened yesterday to include new fighting in Preah Vihear in addition to the ongoing clashes along the undemarcated border near Oddar Meanchey province.
Yesterday, the Thai cabinet passed a resolution supporting “retaliatory military action to push Cambodian soldiers out of the disputed area”, efforts to address the issue through bilateral talks and an instruction to all ministries to “review” ties with Cambodia, the Bangkok Post said.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the Kingdom had “no intention” to review diplomatic ties with Thailand, though he renewed calls from government officials for Indonesia to play a role in resolving the dispute. “The bilateral approach so far resulted in aggressive fighting by the Thai soldiers,” he said. “The immediate need right now is a ceasefire.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith echoed these comments yesterday.“There may be a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit, but to talk about the border, it is necessary to have participation by a third party,” he said.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was set to meet earlier this week with officials in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, though these meetings were called off at the last minute without explanation. Foreign ministers from Thailand and Cambodia are expected to meet at an ASEAN summit in Jakarta on May 7-8, a gathering Hun Sen will also attend, Koy Kuong said.Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, meanwhile, is scheduled to meet with Natalegawa on Thursday, the Bangkok Post said.
Indonesia and a number of other countries have called on the two sides to reach a ceasefire and end hostilities since the fighting broke out last week.
On Monday, the United States joined this chorus, with secretary of state Hillary Clinton saying the US “remains deeply concerned” about the conflict.“We strongly urge both sides to exercise restraint, refrain from provocative acts, and immediately take all necessary steps to reduce tensions and avoid further conflict,” Clinton said in a statement, adding that the US supports mediation by Indonesia.
Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said prospects did not look good for a resolution in the near future, particularly in view of the widening of the conflict yesterday.“I see increased turbulence – it’s almost like we have a car heading down the road with speed bumps, and until the brakes are applied, it’s going to keep hitting those bumps,” he said. As for a successful interlocutor in the dispute, he added, “It has to be Indonesia”.“They’re more likely than any other country in the chair [of ASEAN] to play a strong diplomatic role,” he said. “There’s no other effective way, because they’re all ASEAN members.”