Former prime minister’s visit is just another hiccup in relations.
THE recent tensions in Thai-Cambodian relations are seen in Europe primarily as a reflection of the transition in Thailand from the reign of a monarch who is greatly revered in Thai society and highly respected internationally to an uncertain future that is difficult to predict. It should not be forgotten that the young King Bhumibol Adulyadej felt himself very much influenced by and beholden to the Thai strongman of the time, Field Marshal Phibul Songkran, whom the occupying Japanese suspected of harbouring monarchical aspirations of which they, as devout monarchists, did not approve. Following the coup by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat against Phibul in 1957, only a few weeks after I first arrived in Thailand, the young King Bhumibol established his independence from Phibul’s patronage and, with Sarit’s strong support, became first the national and then the international personality whom we know today, set above politics at the apex of a trinity of Nation, Religion and Monarchy.
Thai revanchism had its heyday in the late 1930s and during the Second World War when arch-nationalists such as Luang Vichit Vadhakarn nurtured pretensions of a Greater Thai nation to include all Tai ethnic groupings in French Indochina, Burma and southern China, and even further afield. It was on the wave of such pan-Thai pretensions that Phibul erected the “Victory Monument” in Bangkok to celebrate a brief Thai military victory over French forces in Cambodia, which led to the wartime occupation of western territories in Cambodia.
Yet relations at the local level between Thais and Khmers in the border regions have historically been friendly and hospitable, with both Thai and Khmer spoken widely on both sides of the border. Around Surin in Thailand, you are more likely to hear Khmer spoken than Thai, though many native Khmer speakers in Thailand do not know the Khmer alphabet, and all will have learned Thai at school. Trading relations, employment and intermarriage across the borders have been traditional and have helped to reduce tensions even at times of serious diplomatic disputes that have flared up in the capitals Bangkok and Phnom Penh.
As regards Thaksin himself, opinions in Europe are mixed.
When the International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 by nine votes to three that the disputed temple of Preah Vihear was situated in Cambodian and not Thai territory, passions for a time ran high in Thailand, but in due course the Thais accepted the ruling. When Prince Sihanouk visited Preah Vihear in January 1963, bounding up the 525-metre-high cliff in less than an hour, he made a notable gesture of conciliation by announcing that all Thai citizens would be welcome to visit the temple without visas, and that Cambodia would not insist on the return of any antiquities that might have been removed.
From the Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia in May 1975 until December 1998, when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in control of Preah Vihear finally surrendered, the temple was unsafe to visit, but in the years that followed when peace was restored, visitors to Preah Vihear enjoyed unfettered access. When in 2007 both Thailand and Cambodia agreed that the site should be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, this appeared to the international community as a perfectly reasonable decision reflecting the wishes of both countries. In Europe there was both puzzlement and astonishment that the Thai foreign minister responsible for the understanding with Cambodia, Noppadon Pattama, who was a former legal adviser to Thaksin Shinawatra, was compelled to resign. In the opinion of the Constitutional Court of Thailand, the understanding had allegedly infringed Thai sovereignty by supposedly “consuming” adjacent areas of land whose ownership Thailand disputed, even though these areas had been excluded from the understanding reached.
Cambodia, thus, finds itself enmeshed in a dispute with Thailand that on the Thai side reflects profound uncertainties about the future, bitter tensions between conservative royalists and pro-Thaksin supporters, and intense puzzlement in the international community about the application of Thai laws, which appear to many Europeans archaic and undemocratic. Any allegation of lese-majeste has to be examined by the Thai police, however unreasonable and even malicious the allegation might seem. “This is a petty law”, The Times commented on Wednesday, “which only opens Thailand up to ridicule.”
As regards Thaksin himself, opinions in Europe are mixed. On the one hand, he enjoyed an unchallenged mandate from the Thai electorate, but was forced out in a military coup which induced even the United States to show its displeasure. Such a democratic mandate commands sympathy and support in Europe. On the other hand, Thaksin’s ruthless policies against local Islamic extremists in the south, his support for the use of police violence against alleged narcotics dealers in the north and the use of his financial clout to dominate the media and silence critics led to serious concerns about the extent of his abuse of human rights. Few, though, were all that concerned by the sentence passed on him for financial corruption, not that the charges might not have had merit, but because in that case many thought that a majority of the financial and commercial establishment in Thailand could well have cases to answer.
Thaksin’s arrival in Phnom Penh is bound to arouse anger in Bangkok, but the visit may only be a three-day wonder likely, and no doubt intended, to provoke politically, but not to result in any physical confrontation in the Preah Vihear area. By the time President Obama arrives in Singapore this weekend for the first summit meeting with ASEAN, the president’s advisers must hope that the summit will not be overshadowed by any serious deterioration in relations, particularly as the Americans have made it clear that differences over Myanmar will no longer dictate the agenda. Prime Minister Abhisit has won popular support by recalling the Thai ambassador, though in times of tension interlocutors are so badly needed.
This may give him, though, the clout necessary to restrain the less-responsible elements in the Thai establishment who have no electoral mandate.
Derek Tonkin was British ambassador to Thailand from 1986 to 1989. He was second secretary at the British embassy in Phnom Penh from 1961 to 1962.