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Analysis: Good relations on the horizon

Analysis: Good relations on the horizon

Timeline: two fraught years in Thai-Cambodian links

June 7, 2008

UNESCO inscribes Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage site during its annual meeting in Quebec City, Canada. Thai Foreign Minister Nappadon Pattama resigns three days later.
July 15, 2008
Cambodian authorities arrest three Thais attempting to cross the border in order to plant their country’s flag at the temple, triggering a military buildup on both sides.

October 15, 2008
After a brief firefight on October 3, Cambodian and Thai forces open fire on each other along the border, leaving three Cambodians dead and two Cambodians and seven Thais wounded.

April 3, 2009
Further fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops leaves at least three Thai soldiers and two Cambodian soldiers dead. About five

November 4, 2009
Cambodia makes public the appointment of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as a government adviser. The following day, both countries recall their ambassadors in connection with the issue.

November 10, 2009
Thaksin arrives in Cambodia to a warm welcome from Prime Minister Hun Sen and government officials. It is the first of three visits he has made to Cambodia since his appointment.

November 12, 2009
Thai Sivarak Chutipong is arrested on charges of passing Thaksin’s flight information to Thai officials. He is jailed in Cambodia but returns to Thailand in December after receiving a Royal pardon.

January 24, 2010
Thai and Cambodian troops begin a week of sporadic firefights, trading small-arms and rocket fire in the border area. Cambodian officials say one Thai soldier is killed in the exchange.

July 5, 2010
Cambodia arrests
two Red Shirt activists suspected of links to an attempted bombing in Bangkok on June 22. The couple are deported to Thailand on July 5.

THOUSANDS are expected to turn out for a celebration at Preah Vihear temple today marking the two-year anniversary of its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The July 2008 listing of the 11th-century Angkorian temple, the ownership of which has long been a point of contention between Cambodia and Thailand, sent bilateral relations into a tailspin from which they have barely recovered.

In Thailand, Foreign Minister Nappadon Pattama was forced to resign after the Thai constitutional court ruled he had acted illegally in supporting Cambodia’s bid.

The ensuing spat – kept constantly tense by a series of small-scale border clashes – hit a new low in November last year, when Cambodia announced it had appointed Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as a government adviser.

Thailand immediately withdrew its ambassador in protest, prompting Cambodia to return the favour.

Relations have remained at a stalemate so far this year. Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said yesterday that any decision to improve diplomatic relations would have to come from Thailand.

“It is up to the Thai side. If the Thais want to upgrade [the relationship], they have to declare first that they are sending back their ambassador,” he said.

He pledged that if Thailand were to dispatch its envoy, Cambodia would reciprocate within 15 minutes “at most”.

Cambodia’s handover on Monday of two Red Shirt activists suspected of involvement in an attempted bombing in Bangkok has prompted some observers to speculate that ties might be on the mend.

On Monday, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva thanked Cambodia for the handover, and said he hoped the move would pave the way for closer collaboration between the two governments.

Springtime for Abhisit
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the deportation was the most recent demonstration of a thaw in relations that began at a Mekong River Commission summit in April.

The change had been marked, he said, by a moderation in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s provocative stance towards the Abhisit government, as well as a recognition that Abhisit had consolidated his position since antigovernment Red Shirt protests were violently dispersed in May.

“It doesn’t seem that the Bangkok elite in the Democratic Party will give up power easily,” Pavin said. “Hun Sen must have realised that it’s no good for his long-term interests if he does not change his stance on the current government.”

According to one line of thinking, Bangkok took Hun Sen’s pro-Thaksin stance a little too seriously: Their political relationship, which led relations to a new low last year, was purely pragmatic – and therefore subject to change.

“It was partly a domestic political game, and partly just a way of having fun at Thailand’s expense,” said Duncan McCargo, a Southeast Asia expert based at the University of Leeds.

“The history of relations between Thaksin and the CPP elite suggests that this is a very pragmatic relationship, rather than the robust and threatening alliance imagined by the Democrat Party.”

Set in stone
But Preah Vihear temple – known to the Thais as Phra Viharn – continues to cast a long shadow over the countries’ relationship. Although a World Court ruling handed the temple to Cambodia in 1962, it continues to rankle nationalists in Thailand.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, described enthusiasm about Preah Vihear as “a celebration of Cambodian identity”, but that the populist use of the issue in Cambodia had put pressure on Thailand to respond.

Indeed, the temple’s symbolism is only magnified by the domestic turmoil that has gripped Thailand since the 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin.

Michael Montesano, a professor at the National University of Singapore, said the domestic political situation in Thailand – where the Abhisit government remained constrained by the need to appease “extreme Yellow Shirt elements” – could keep Preah Vihear firmly on the agenda.

McCargo agreed, saying the temple was not a constant source of concern in itself, but “is dusted off when there is a rise in political temperature” in Thailand.

The long-term health of Thai-Cambodian relations could hinge on the outcome of Thai elections expected later this year.

“Bilateral relations depend totally on Thai domestic politics,” Chheang Vannarith said. If the election failed to produce a government with a popular mandate, or triggered more violent street protests, he said, the two countries’ relations could suffer.

An electoral win by antigovernment Red Shirts and their allies would certainly improve relations with Phnom Penh in the short term, but Pavin said that Thai-Cambodian tensions would never fully fade.

“Relations sit on historical bitterness, territorial issues that have never been resolved,” he said. “The problem will always be there.”


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