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Thai political turmoil seen as stalling border row talks

Thai political turmoil seen as stalling border row talks

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081128_02.jpg

But as Bangkok erupts in civil unrest, Cambodia unlikely to take advantage of its neighbour's upheaval to press its point

Photo by:
HENG CHIVOAN 

A soldier unrolls cartridges of ammunition in Preah Vihear in this file photo. Civil unrest in Thailand makes a speedy resolution to the months-old border standoff unlikely.

AFTER ratcheting up its rhetoric last month, the government has since resisted taking jabs at Thailand over their disputed territory, even as escalating political upheaval in Bangkok has made progress in border negotiations impossible.

"Nothing has changed in our negotiations with the Thai government," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong. "They claim they are fine and still able to communicate [over diplomatic affairs]."

The government remains tight-lipped on its ability - or inability - to engage with the besieged regime.   

"The protests don't affect us. That's their internal dispute and we won't interfere," said Koy Kuong.  

But as rioting in Bangkok boils over into full-blown civil unrest, forcing the Cabinet to go into hiding and putting the government's foreign affairs on the backburner, Cambodia faces the possibility of losing another chance to advance negotiations over its shared border.

Some Asean member states have asked Thailand to postpone a regional summit it is supposed to host in Chiang Mai next month, and the scheduled bilateral talks in Siem Reap in January could also fall by the wayside.

Even if the summit is held, Cambodia will not put the border dispute on the agenda, according to Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.

"We're not going to pressure Thailand. Through bilateral talks, we can talk in a friendly way."

Changing its tune

The government has been advancing a patient line on Thailand's internal turmoil. But this hasn't always been the case during the five-month-old standoff.

Hun Sen on October 13 delivered an ultimatum to Thailand that it must withdraw its forces from Cambodian territory, warning of a "full-scale conflict" if Bangkok did not comply.

But, after a border clash a couple of days later that claimed the lives of three Cambodians, Hun Sen downplayed the threat of war.

Telling reporters that "Cambodia is poor and will not show its muscles", Hun Sen assumed a decidedly humbler tone, which he has largely maintained since.  

This approach has frustrated Yim Sovann, a lawmaker from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, who said Thailand's reliability as a negotiator should be raised during the Asean summit in December.

"Since July, there have been many meetings but no results," he said.

But Chea Vannath, an independent commentator on social and political affairs, said that "while what's happening within each country affects the other in border talks, the reality is that patience is expected".

She also said that Hun Sen, while a seasoned veteran in persevering through domestic conflicts, had limited experience in formal international diplomacy, and therefore may still be finding his range in speaking on a dispute that's in the global limelight.  

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, thought the Cambodian government was wise to avoid embarrassing Bangkok.

"The bottom line is there's no way for an agreement now because the Thai Cabinet and parliament are unable to convene."

If Cambodia were to petition for third-party involvement, the international community would sympathise with the domestic difficulties in Thailand that left the hands of its government tied, he said.

"Cambodia has every right to do that, but it could damage the long-term relationship between the two sides," he said.

Saving face is paramount in Asian diplomatic etiquette,  he added, and pressing an already beleaguered regime could be seen as stepping outside the accepted rules of engagement.

"The Thai government is falling, so to step on it by pressing it for a resolution would be viewed as adding insult to injury."

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