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Domestic issues fuel Thai-Cambodian spats

Asia Times - April 29, 2011

Nelson Rand, Nong Kun Na and Bangkok Fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops along their disputed border continued on Friday for an eighth consecutive day despite reports the day before that a temporary ceasefire had been reached.

Since armed hostilities resumed on April 22, at least 16 people have been killed, over 50 injured and at least 50,000 displaced on both sides of the border. Strategic and political analysts foresee sustained sporadic fighting, though the chances of the clashes escalating into full-scale war still seem slim.

"Thailand's and Cambodia's relationship is fragile and fighting will likely erupt again," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scientist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "The dispute has been too politicized that it will take a long time before ties will be healed," he added.

"I doubt that a ceasefire will hold because the border tensions are now being driven by their own dynamic," said Marc Askew, a senior fellow at the University of Melbourne who specializes in Thai politics and security issues and who is editor of the recently published book Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand.

The latest bout of fighting is centered around a disputed hill near the ancient temples of Ta Krabey and Ta Moan, representing an expansion of previous hostilities that centered on the contested Preah Vihear temple. Although both countries have long laid claim to these ancient ruins and border territories, most analysts believe the conflict is being driven more by domestic politics in both countries.

"[The border conflict] is a function of the two states' domestic politics, and especially Thailand's civil and military relations in the midst of a major political transition," wrote Stratfor, a United States-based private intelligence firm, in a recent analysis of the conflict.

"On the Cambodian side, nationalism is always a way to boost Prime Minister Hun Sen's leadership, and Cambodia is no doubt willing and ready to exploit a neighbor consumed by intense factional politics," Stratfor wrote in a separate analysis.

The neighbors have been locked in a diplomatic row for nearly three years while Thailand has been rattled by a prolonged and sometimes violent political crisis. The border issue has presented both governments with an opportunity to galvanize nationalist sentiment at home and gain popular support by rallying their citizens against an external threat.

This has been especially the case for Thailand, which is beset by entrenched political and social divisions at a time when the Thai military has been strengthening its influence and power in politics. With general elections expected to be held in late June or early July, analysts believe the Thai military is now flexing its muscles to signal its intention of retaining strong influence over the next elected government.

After launching a military coup in 2006 to depose prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the military's stake would surely be reduced if the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party wins the elections as its predecessors of the now dissolved People's Power Party did the last time the country went to the polls in December 2007. Recent opinion polls show Puea Thai stands a good chance in what is expected to be a tightly fought election.

"Certainly there is some sort of connection between the current armed clashes with Cambodia and the upcoming election," said Singapore-based political scientist Pavin. "This reflects a desperate measure of the Thai military to maintain its power position in politics, and indeed its domination of domestic and foreign policy," he added.

Diplomatic politics

Compared with the incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva-led coalition, Puea Thai has comparatively good relations with Cambodia as does its allied United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest movement, whose mass street campaign last year resulted in some of the country's worst political violence in its modern history.

Many UDD leaders fled to Cambodia after last year's military crackdown on its members to escape arrest by Thai authorities. That sanctuary was given after Thaksin was made a special economic advisor to Hun Sen in late 2009, a move that infuriated Bangkok and contributed largely to the recent deterioration in bilateral ties.

Now, the armed hostilities are emerging as a campaign issue as both sides swing into vote-getting mode. "If we win the elections, we will seek friendship with Cambodia," Puea Thai parliamentarian and prominent UDD leader Jatuporn Promphan told reporters on Tuesday night at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Bangkok. "There is no reason for us to fight."

Paul Chambers, a Thai military affairs specialist at Heidelberg University, contends there is a good chance that violence along the Thai-Cambodian border will continue in the run-up to the elections and that this recent fighting could be an attempt by the Thai military to delay the polls.

"The violent intensity of frontier friction between Thailand and Cambodia will be determined first by the arch-royalist Thai military's preference to delay the upcoming Thai election [and] second, the Thai election itself, after which tensions could diminish since Thai politicos will no longer be campaigning through the use of anti-Cambodian rhetoric," he said.

Domestic imperatives are also pushing Cambodia's hardline stance. "[The level of hostilities will also depend on] Hun Sen's own satisfaction with the successful use of irredentist ultra-nationalism to bolster the political power of himself and his son," said Chambers.

Hun Sen's eldest son, Major General Hun Manet, is reported to be one of the key commanders overseeing operations along the border. The 33-year-old West Point Graduate has rapidly moved up the ranks of the Cambodian army, with some observers believing Hun Sen is grooming him to assume his position as premier.

Despite the intensity of the recent clashes and rising death tolls, most analysts believe it is unlikely the conflict will expand into full-scale war.

"Both Thailand and Cambodia will pull back from the brink of a full-blown conflict," said Ian Storey, a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "Thailand could not expect a quick victory against Cambodia, and Hun Sen will not want to get into a protracted war with an important neighbor," he added.

According to Stratfor, this latest round of fighting can be explained through both countries' temporary political considerations and does not represent a threat to the vital interests of either country. "The two sides have fought low-level border conflicts for decades that have not escalated to broad war," Stratfor said in an April 26 analysis of the conflict.

Nevertheless, both sides are digging in by sending reinforcements and bolstering their defenses. On the Thai side of the border, the army has this week actively recruited, armed and trained civilians affected by the fighting to act as village defense guards in border areas.

"I've come [back] here to protect my village, to defend my home, my land and the Thai people," said Wonbik Chai, a newly recruited village defense guard in Nong Kun Na two kilometers from the frontline. "Anyone who takes our land, we will take it back," he added while holding a shotgun.

[Nelson Rand is a Bangkok-based journalist with a master's degree in Asia-Pacific policy studies. He may be reached at nelsonrand@hotmail.com.]

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