the world has stood by in muted response as the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia raged for years.
It has stood silent as more than 40,000 Cambodian civilians have become internally displaced in their homeland because of the expansionist, recalcitrant and shameful acts of Thailand and its rogue armed forces who control the civil administration in Bangkok rather than the government control the army.
The world and ASEAN to a large extend, have stood by while Thailand and Cambodia slugged it out in a one-sided fight over territory which has been declared the sovereign territory of Cambodia by the International Court of Justice.
The non interventionist policy of ASEAN had prevailed until February this year when the then round of fighting led Cambodia to lodge protests and complaints with the UNSC, UNESCO, WHC over Thai aggression and destruction of lives and property in Cambodia.
Indonesia, responding to UNSC’s mandate, intervened to mediate and agreed with the consent of both Thailand and Cambodia to send unarmed observers to the so-called disputed zone to establish facts from fiction, especially since Thailand is very fond of accusing Cambodia of being the aggressor, a country whose economy and military power is hardly featured in any global economic or military report unlike Thailand which is reported to have 28th, largest army in the world.
Silence and muted response all round. That is until last weekend in Indonesia, Malaysia finally decided it has seen and heard enough. It said, breaking from tradition, that Thailand had reneged on a deal to send observers to the disputed region.
“Thailand had reneged on a deal to send observers to the disputed areas”. There it is. Finally, a rational party with no vested interest in the fight between Thailand and Cambodia other than wanting to set the record straight.
“An agreement had been agreed upon, [Thailand] should adhere to it, I wouldn’t want to say lacking in faith... [but] they did not adhere to the agreement,” Malaysian deputy foreign minister Richard Riot Jaem was quoted by the media as saying.
“Thailand refused and that’s why the skirmish came again,” said Riot, who attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting where it was agreed 30 observers would be stationed on either side of the border.
“All the 10 countries, I stress, including Thailand and Cambodia, agreed to the agreement but sad to say, the agreement was brought back to the respective two countries. Cambodia accepted it, Thailand did not accept,” he said.
“Before this, Cambodia was pointing at Thailand as starting the attack and Thailand said it was Cambodia who started ... so to [determine] who started the skirmish... the foreign ministers decided to assign observers.”
Thailand, in typical fashion responded by saying that Malaysia did not understand the Thai-Cambodia situation and astoundingly claimed that the issue has been settled. So says Thai Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, a beleaguered Premier who can’t exert his political control over a belligerent Thai army whose commander and Defence Minister openly challenge the Premier’s orders or decisions.
One of the problems regarding the conflict is that it has become as “he said/she said” debate with Cambodia blaming Thailand and Thailand blaming Cambodia. Both sides have their own version of the “truth”. Outsiders have mainly kept quiet, or at least publicly. The statement above by the Malaysian deputy foreign minister is fairly clear in its criticism of Thailand.
The Malaysian position is fairly simple. A deal was agreed upon by all sides a few months ago and now Thailand is not willing to agree to that.
Now, Malaysia is not blaming Thailand for starting the clashes, but they do appear to be holding Thailand responsible for what has transpired with the recent clash.
The world may never know which side started the latest clash, since Thailand continues to resist allowing international observers to monitor the area. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly clear that the Thai military is doing nothing to ease the tension.
What we can understand and concede is that the military, and then Bangkok, continuously vetoes initiatives to get the two sides talking. After the last major bout of fighting in February, Cambodia succeeded in bringing the matter to the United Nations Security Council, which promptly kicked it back to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia, the chair of ASEAN this year, has played shuttle diplomacy trying to bring the two sides together, but Bangkok continues to balk by accusing Cambodia of internationalizing the issue which Thailand insists on bilateral talks through established mechanisms which has yielded zero results except fighting, deaths and misery.
Thus Malaysia’s stance of breaking away from the credo of non interference is a laudable action that must be applauded and consequently hope that it is emulated by others in the ASEAN family.
Thailand’s unwillingness to even contemplate compromise may be due to the broader impasse in its domestic politics. As long as the Thai military is allowed to play its pivotal role in national politics, Thailand will fail to play its rightful role as a stabilizing force in Southeast Asia.
Sam Sotha, Member of the Advisory Board of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the office of Council of Ministers
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