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Outlook uncertain as Thai army commanders call Hun Sen's bluff

Outlook uncertain as Thai army commanders call Hun Sen's bluff

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Analysts say that domestic turmoil will adversely affect the bargaining position of the new Thai PM, but urge the Cambodian govt to make a more measured response to the crisis

AFP

A Cambodian military commander (left) talks to a Thai counterpart (right) during a meeting near Preah Vihear temple on Sunday.

EVEN opponents of the government agree that Prime Minister Hun Sen had a right to take a firm stand against Thai border incursions near Preah Vihear temple. But with troops from both sides now digging in after last week's fighting, political analysts are divided on how his  tough rhetoric will impact the resolution of the three-month-old military stand-off.

After Wednesday's border clashes, in which three Cambodian soldiers were killed and nearly a dozen Thais wounded, Hun Sen downplayed the threat of war, saying that the situation along the border was "under control".

"Cambodia is poor and will not show its muscles," he told reporters after a cabinet meeting Friday. "There will be no big war because the two countries are still patient."

His comments came on the heels of his October 13 ultimatum to Thailand that it should withdraw its forces from Cambodian territory at Veal Antri, warning of a "full-scale conflict" if Bangkok did not comply.

Although local politicians agreed the Cambodian government holds the moral high ground on the border dispute, some questioned the wisdom of bluffing beleaguered Thai politicians with threats of open war.

"[The bluff] was a response to the continuing violations of the Thais. The Thais have been playing games with him, and I think he lost patience," said Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Son Chhay, adding that the government should welcome the mediation of the international community.

"I think [the threat] was a mistake. We advised him to deal with it through international organisations, to approach the UN or the co-chairs of the Paris Peace Agreements," he said.

There will be no big war because the two countries are still patient.

With officials from both sides due to meet in Siem Reap for another round of talks Friday, independent analyst Chea Vannath said Hun Sen's comments might have been misjudged, but did not think it would impact the "very slow process" of the border negotiations.

"[Hun Sen] was trying to project the image that he is serious about protecting our territory," she said.

"It's not a big issue. It's more an issue of pride."

Koy Kuong, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, endorsed the remarks made by the prime minister Friday, but would not comment on last week's ultimatum in light of the bloodshed on the border.

"A peaceful solution is the best solution," he said. "Cambodia has experience with war and found that it doesn't offer any benefit besides destroying assets and people's lives."

Thai upheavals

However, some analysts are pessimistic that negotiations will do anything to resolve the conflict until a resolution of the political crisis within Thailand.

"Talking doesn't mean anything or affect anything," said Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc. "In Thailand, the current government is very weak, especially on the problem of the Thai-Cambodian border. If they agree with the Cambodian government on something, the political opposition takes the opportunity to accuse them of being traitors."

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst based at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said Thailand's domestic crisis, which has seen the opposition People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) keep up street protests in an attempt to force the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, had hampered the temple negotiations.

"The turmoil and confrontation in Bangkok is going to adversely affect Prime Minister Somchai's negotiating and bargaining position because he is being hounded and undermined," he said.

"He is essentially being overthrown by the PAD... and the PAD has used the [Preah Vihear] issue to accuse the Somchai government...of selling out."

Given the situation in Bangkok, Thun Saray said the likelihood of holding effective talks was low and questioned the control of Thailand's civilian leadership over the Thai troops at the border.

"Normally, when two parties are in conflict, they agree to talk. The Thais said they wanted a peaceful solution, but at the same time they moved their troops further into Cambodian territory," he said.

In this context, heated rhetoric from the Cambodian side could be like a red flag to a bull. "In Cambodia, the government can prevent violence like the anti-Thai violence of 2003, but in Thailand I don't know," he said. "If the opposition politicians took power now and tried to push more troops into Cambodia, it could escalate."

However, Chea Vannath said her main fear was the scores of heavily-armed soldiers biding their time in foxholes at the border. "I am pleased at what the Cambodian government is trying to do," she said.

"My concern is that you have two armed forces facing each other. It's so easy for something to happen."

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