Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Analysis: Conflict never far at border

Analysis: Conflict never far at border

Analysis: Conflict never far at border


Cluster Bomb found in Preah Vihear.

Several months ago, Cambodian officials placed a stone tablet along the contentious border near Preah Vihear temple, immediately drawing the ire of Thai officials.

“Here! is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008, and withdrew at 10:30am on December 1, 2010,” the sign in question read.

Thai Lieutenant General Thawatchai Samutsakhon reportedly said at the time that Thailand “cannot accept” the sign, adding: “If they don’t take it down, I may have a sign with a similar message erected.” Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters in Bangkok that he had ordered military officials to contact Cambodia about removing the offending message.

Cambodian officials complied, only to replace it with a new sign reading: “Here! is Cambodia.” This marker provoked a fresh round of protests in Bangkok and was also removed in short order.

However comical this episode appeared at the time, it was emblematic of excessive nationalism and continual provocations that have characterised Thai-Cambodian relations over the past few years.

This dynamic has long been exploited by politicians on both sides, and, with troops massed along the border, has left the two countries perpetually on the brink of conflict. Now, analysts say, Thailand’s renegade military has brought these long-simmering tensions to a boil, resulting in the bloodiest fighting the Kingdom has seen in years. “There’s every suspicion that the Thais have been the aggressor … and that Thai aggression along the border is part of a much bigger game in Thai domestic politics,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

At least 14 have been killed since fighting first broke out last Friday along the Thai-Cambodian border near Oddar Meanchey province, with dozens wounded and thousands of civilians displaced on both sides of the border.

Fighting stretched into a sixth day yesterday, and has come amid a crackdown in Thailand on the anti-government “Red Shirt” movement and others perceived to be associated with former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The populist Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 military coup, lives abroad to avoid graft charges but remains the country’s most controversial figure.

We have to ask why this is happening now, and my bottom line is it comes down to Thai politics and ... the Thai military

This week, Thai police raided 13 Red Shirt radio stations, and earlier this month, Thai army chief Praytuh Chan-ocha threatened lese majeste charges against Red Shirt leaders and a prominent academic for allegedly defaming Thailand’s revered monarchy. The monarch himself, 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been hospitalised since 2009, and anxiety is high about how a looming royal succession will play out.
Elections expected by July, and the possibility of a Red Shirt victory, provide a backdrop to fears within the conservative military that Thailand’s existing order is increasingly under threat.

“We have to ask why this is happening now, and my bottom line is that it comes down to Thai politics and the maneuvering of the Thai military,” said Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy. The border fighting, he said, has allowed the military to take an increasingly prominent role and exert its will over the civilian government.

Montesano agreed, saying the Thai military may be using the renewed conflict at the border “to provoke such an air of crisis that they have the ability to steer things the way they want”.

But while Thailand may be on the aggressive this week, Cambodia and its rhetorically unrestrained premier have also played a role in raising tensions over the years, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

“Do you dare to swear on magic that could break your neck, on a plane crash or a dissolution of the countries, that your soldiers did not invade Cambodia’s territory?” Hun Sen said in a speech last year, apparently addressing Abhisit. More recently, the government has irritated Bangkok by sentencing a pair of Thai nationalists to lengthy jail terms for espionage after they were arrested in December for allegedly trespassing in Banteay Meanchey province.

“In the time of conflict, people look to the strongman,” Ou Virak said, adding that Hun Sen was now engaged in a “balancing act” between continuing to play upon nationalistic sentiment and ensuring that the conflict does not spiral further out of control.

In statements over the past week, the government has acknowledged the difficulty it would face should the hostilities continue to escalate, referring to Thailand’s “larger and materially more sophisticated armed forces” in condemning the country’s alleged attacks.

Thayer said Hun Sen had used the border conflict “to great effect” in domestic politics while at the same time currying favour internationally by appealing for third party mediation over the recalcitrance of the Thais, who insist on bilateral talks.

The premier has announced his intention to bring the dispute before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next month after previously appealing to the United Nations Security Council. Despite these moves, though, he has shown no inclination to be more diplomatic in his language, saying yesterday that he had “never met a Thai prime minister as bad as Abhisit”.

Abhisit, for his part, said yesterday that Cambodia must “stop the shooting first” before the two sides can move to the negotiating table, Thai state media reported.

“It’s a kind of game going on,” Thayer said. “But it’s a dangerous game, because people are getting killed.”