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Waiting for the Indonesians

Waiting for the Indonesians

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A year ago, Cambodia and Thailand fought a series of short but nasty skirmishes along their joint border.

Efforts to reduce tensions through the deployment of Indonesian observers remain still-born; 12 months on, there are no observers and, on the Cambodian side, just a lonely man with Indonesian and ASEAN flags blowing in the breeze.

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The dispute, centred on the emblematic Preah Vihear temple – in Cambodian territory, but often claimed by Thailand – was serious enough to seize the attention of the United Nations Security Council.

It also triggered signs that ASEAN wanted a more pro-active role in ensuring stability in its region.

This optimism, however, has given way to stasis and further questioning of the organisation’s ability to look after its own back yard.

Earlier this month, I met an official from Cambodia’s National Task Force whose job it is to prepare the ground for the observers’ arrival.

After I travelled four hours north from Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor ruins, he picked me up in his new Mitsubishi truck with ASEAN-logo decals and the licence plate IOT 3.

IOT stands for Indonesia Observer Team.

Under the terms of reference signed by Cambodia last May ahead of the ASEAN summit in Jakarta, there were to be 15 Indonesian soldiers and civilians on either side of the border.

Thailand did not sign the agreement, and it never came into force.

After then-foreign minister Kasit Piromya announced Bangkok’s agreement to their deployment, objections from the military made the historic deal quickly falter.

First, Thailand quibbled over the observers’ location, the team’s name, their diplomatic status, and what they would wear.

Then Thai generals said they would not accept Indonesian soldiers in uniform on their soil, as it was an affront to their sovereignty.

A special meeting convened by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the sidelines of the summit could not remove the roadblock.

A decision of the International Court of Justice last July ordering their deployment was ignored.

The narrow interests of the Thai military trumped ASEAN’s potential collective good in coming up with a working mechanism to deal with violent conflict within its own membership.

Back in Cambodia’s far north, on the border near Preah Vihear, bored Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers stare across the valley at their Thai comrades who seem to be doing little else but staring back.

To occupy their time, they eat, sleep, converse, play games; it’s too brutally hot to exercise. Some say they just want to go home.

After visiting the World Heritage temple site, we visited the empty headquarters of the ASEAN Mission for Cease-Fire Observation.

The red-and-white Indonesian flag was everywhere.

Had the Indonesians arrived, I asked. No. What did my guide do all day? He waited for the Indonesians, was the response; he didn’t expect them any time soon.

This poor fellow, originally from Kampong Cham, Cambodia’s border province with Vietnam many miles away, was like a sad facsimile of a character in a Conrad novel – sent out to the back of beyond by his bosses and, perhaps, forgotten.

A few days after my visit, on March 5, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa met in Phnom Penh and reportedly discussed the Indonesia Observer Team.

But most officials in the capital seem to want to forget about this problem in the year that it’s Cambodia’s turn to chair ASEAN and as Phnom Penh’s efforts to secure a temporary seat on the UN Security Council intensify.

My friend from the National Task Force waits for something that may never come.

But even if they were deployed, the observers would solve only part of the problem, as their area of operat-ions covers only Preah Vihear and its environs, in particular the 18-square-kilometre provisional demilitarised area created by the International Court of Justice decision.

About 150 kilometres to the west, troops from both countries face off  around the more obscure temples of Ta Moan and Ta Krabei.

They are heavily armed, well dug in, and so close that at Ta Moan they even share shade from the same trees.

This is not sustainable. It is simply too risky that firefights will be triggered, even if only accidentally.

Visiting Ta Moan, it was difficult to accept that Thailand and Cambodia, through the ASEAN umbrella, had sworn undying friendship towards each other.

The world’s focus has shifted elsewhere, but here on this disputed frontier the conflict continues.

The week before my visit, gunshots terrified the residents of a nearby town.

They turned out to be soldiers shooting in the air, but last year’s fighting suggests such sounds may not always be so harmless.

Rather than waiting for the conflict to re-ignite and again cause problems for Cambodia, Thailand and ASEAN, there is a first step that could be taken towards preventing future misunderstandings and violent conflict: deploy the observers.

The flags are flying, the maps are posted, vehicles are fuelled. And one Cambodian official is ready and waiting to provide the welcome.

Jonathan Prentice is the senior policy adviser at the International Crisis Group.

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