GOVERNMENT officials on Sunday rejected the notion that military exercises held last week in Kampong Chhnang province were designed to provoke neighbouring Thailand, re-sponding to comments reportedly made by ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan.
On Friday, Malaysia’s Bernama news agency said ASEAN “fears that Cambodia may send a wrong signal to the world” with the exercises, citing an interview with Surin, a former Thai foreign minister.
“We are very concerned with such development,” Surin was quoted as saying while in Bangkok last week. Asked to elaborate on his concerns, Surin said: “I have no details. I have to look into the details first.”
In a letter addressed to Surin and dated Sunday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong took aim at the secretary general’s comments, saying that the rocket launch “would in no way send wrong signals that the region is unstable”.
“I strongly believe that in your capacity as secretary general of ASEAN, you should not make any wrong statement which may bring about a bad image to an ASEAN member country,” Hor Namhong wrote. “Moreover, you should not make any statement which can be considered as an interference in the internal affairs of Cambodia.”
On Thursday, Cambodia test-fired 200 rockets from BM-21 rocket launchers in Kampong Chhnang province. The test came after Thailand conducted military exercises in its Surin province, which borders Cambodia, in January and February, though Prime Minister Hun Sen insisted it was unrelated to the countries’ ongoing dispute.
“This is not to flex our military muscle – it is a typical exercise to prepare the military to defend the nation from any incursion,” he said Thursday.
Thai officials, including Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said last week that Cambodia was well within its rights to test-fire the rockets.
“I don’t believe the test is intended to threaten the Thai military, as I understand that it is a normal military exercise,” the Bangkok Post quoted Abhisit as saying.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Sunday that Bangkok had no response to Surin’s comments.
“That’s the secretary’s comment. We are not going to comment on the secretary’s comments or opinion,” he said.
Hor Namhong said the government had chosen Kampong Chhnang, in central Cambodia, “in order to avoid any wrong understanding and comments” that the exercise was related to the disagreement with Thailand.
“Normally and in principle, an ASEAN secretary general should exercise some self-restraint while making any comment or statement concerning an ASEAN member country,” Hor Namhong wrote in the letter.
Carlyle Thayer, a professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said last week that Thursday’s launch was in line with Hun Sen’s aggressive posture towards Thailand over the past few months, which he called “out of step” with diplomatic norms.
“Everyone in ASEAN holds their nose and says, ‘This is a bad odour,’” Thayer said. “I can’t imagine any ASEAN country being sympathetic to him.”
Ministry of Defence spokesman Chhum Socheat said, however, that any discord within ASEAN was attributable to Thailand, not Cambodia.
“I think any instability that exists in the region is not caused by the Cambodian exercise, but by Thailand sending its troops to invade Cambodian territory,” Chhum Socheat said, referring to the countries’ ongoing dispute over territory surrounding the Preah Vihear temple complex.
In his letter to Surin, also sent to his fellow foreign ministers within ASEAN, Hor Namhong said Cambodia had no intention of becoming the aggressor in the disagreement.
“The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces will never undertake any action against any country. Their job is solely to protect Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Hor Namhong wrote.