Coverage, rather than rhetoric, can lead in igniting Thai-Cambodian tensions, analysts warn
THERE was no shortage of border rhetoric this weekend. Knowing the media would scrutinise a high-profile visit to Preah Vihear temple, Cambodian officials threw jabs at Thailand’s leader, its claims to contested land and the Thai press.
In an unusual move, the government attacked one of Thailand’s English-language newspapers, accusing the Bangkok Post of publishing a “distorted” view of the weekend visit.
When the newspaper reported that a Thai army official led a delegation that welcomed the premier to the temple – it was Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodian officials said, who welcomed the Thai officer – the reaction was swift.
“Such [an] untrustworthy report clearly shows that the Bangkok Post is perfidious and falsely reporting to blindly mislead the public,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release stated.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said the volley had been unexpected.
“This is a very rare instance in which the Cambodian prime minister has attacked the Thai media directly,” he said.
“I think the media plays an important role in bringing the message to the public. Maybe he thinks that by attacking the media, he can also at the same time attack the Thai government.”
Heightened media attention
Meanwhile, Thai media reports have been heavily fixated on Hun Sen’s various jabs at Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
There were several to choose from during Hun Sen’s speech on Monday, delivered after he skipped a visit to the disputed Tamone Thom temple in Oddar Meanchey province.
“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 on July 15, 2008?” Hun Sen said before accusing Abhisit of having “no family honour”.
A story published Tuesday in the Bangkok Post dealt almost exclusively with the remarks, declaring: “A fresh onslaught of insults by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen directed at Abhisit Vejjajiva is widening the diplomatic gulf between the two countries.”
The story featured a graphic listing English translations of Hun Sen’s comments.
“Diplomatic tensions did not ease despite Hun Sen not turning up at the temple,” the story concluded.
This was a more severe approach than the one adopted by the state-run Thai News Agency, which ran a headline Monday that read: “Thai-Cambodian border tension eases as Hun Sen returns to Phnom Penh.”
Regional media have a history of igniting controversy, said Chris Roberts, a lecturer of international relations and Asian studies at the University of Canberra.
When it comes to hot-button issues that define national identity, reporters may find themselves balancing patriotism with journalistic objectivity, he said. And sometimes the line is crossed.
“It can almost have a snowball effect, where the media responds on each side,” said Roberts, who was speaking generally. “Sometimes it’s hard to know whether the politicians themselves are leading the debate.”
Cambodian media, including the Post, have also reported extensively on Hun Sen’s remarks. A Tuesday report by Deum Ampil, a Khmer media organisation, cited an unnamed Cambodian military source suggesting that Thai troops planned on “invading” a disputed border area.
“The Cambodian army is prepared to face any invaders who want to swallow Khmer land,” the story stated.
Given the sensitivity of the issue, said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, media outlets must reconsider how they cover the border conflict.
When Hun Sen speaks, local TV stations broadcast and rebroadcast his messages largely unedited, he said.
“By reporting on these kinds of attacks, I don’t think that helps solve the problem. It may just be like pouring gasoline into a fire,” Moeun Chhean Nariddh said.
In 2003, a mob burned down the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh after a Cambodian media reported – falsely – that a Thai actress had said Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.
The border “is a very delicate issue in terms of national pride and professionalism. Sometimes Cambodians maybe have crossed the line”, Moeun Chhean Nariddh said.
“So far there has not been a big problem yet. But if we continue to report on the situation the way we have done so far, we may in the end make the situation get worse instead of better.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY