War of words for Cambodia, Thailand
By Stephen Kurczy
PHNOM PENH - The military standoff between Thailand and Cambodia over the
900-year-old Preah Vihear temple complex has emerged as a new regional security
hotspot, one that has claimed at least nine lives, stifled bilateral commercial
relations and consumed precious financial resources.
The row is expected to feature at next week's Association of Southeast Asian
Nations Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Phuket, Thailand, where US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton will be among those in attendance. With both governments
playing the nationalism card to domestic constituencies, security analysts say
there is no end in sight to the conflict, which in recent weeks has returned to
Tensions mounted last month when Thailand challenged the
United Nations decision in 2008 to designate the temple as a world heritage
site under the sole jurisdiction of Cambodia, motivating both sides to bolster
their troop levels in the contested border area. Cambodia, meanwhile, has
rejected Thailand's claim to 1.8 square miles (4.6 square kilometers) around
the temple, which is more readily accessible from Thailand. The two countries
share an 800-kilometer border.
Last week, Phnom Penh used the one-year anniversary of the temple's world
heritage site registration as an occasion to stir anti-Thai sentiment.
Celebrating what they referred to as a "victory" over Thailand, Cambodian
authorities released pigeons from the cliff-top temple and monks at 4,000
pagodas nationwide simultaneously and symbolically banged drums.
In the capital, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, Hun Sen's right-hand-man, accused
Thailand of "trying to invade and take Cambodian land". Major General Srey Dek,
the top commander at the temple, told the crowd: "On behalf of the soldiers, I
want to send a strong commitment to fight any obstacle in order to protect my
The nationalistic postures are crimping commercial ties with one of Cambodia's
top trade and investment partners. "If the tension continues," said 20-year-old
economics student Ath Dalen as he observed the celebrations, "it means Thai
businessmen wonít invest in Cambodia."
The temple standoff is hurting both countries' teetering economies, already hit
by the global economic downturn. This is particularly so in their shared border
areas. Visitors to Cambodia's Preah Vihear province, whose primary tourist
attraction is the temple, fell 50% in the first half of 2009, according to
From Cambodia's perch, the military spat has made Thailand a less reliable
business partner, prompting Cambodia to prioritize trade and investment ties
with neighboring Vietnam. That's put negotiations towards a joint exploitation
agreement for oil and gas deposits in the overlapping claims area in the Gulf
of Thailand on the backburner.
Talks towards a joint agreement had been restarted after the anti-Thai riots of
2003, when a Cambodian mob burned the Thai embassy and ransacked Thai
businesses in Phnom Penh. "The standoff can be costly, not only financially but
also in terms of wasted labor, attention of our leaders, the time," said
Cambodian Economic Association President Chan Sophal. "The worry is that if it
cannot be contained, managed at some level, then it could significantly affect
He says that Cambodian farmers along the Thai border have long anticipated a
bilateral agreement that would allow them to export goods more cheaply from
Thai shipping ports. "The agreement has stagnated because of the border
conflict," Chan said. He claims local farmers now must pay three times as much
to ship their goods from the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville.
The conflict is deeply entwined in domestic politics on both sides. Thailand
controlled Preah Vihear for much of the 20th century, but relinquished control
after the International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the contested
temple is within Cambodian territory. It became a Khmer Rouge jungle base in
the 1970s, and their rusted canons still sit beside the temple's 800-meter-long
Leading up to the UN's July 7, 2008, recognition of Preah Vihear as one of the
world's important historical relics, nationalistic and anti-government Thai
protestors amassed at the temple to protest the Foreign Ministry's
acknowledgement of the UN's designation. Tensions eventually spread to two
additional disputed temples along the border. Thai and Cambodian troops clashed
in October, leaving one Thai and three Cambodians dead.
The two sides exchanged automatic weapon fire and rockets again in April,
killing three Thai and two Cambodian soldiers. As the first anniversary of the
temple's heritage recognition approached earlier this month, Thai and Cambodian
troops, previously playing together friendly games of cards, were again tensely
poised just 50 meters apart. Thailand's commander for the area was quoted
saying that his troops were ready "to promptly retaliate" if attacked.
The escalating spat has raised hard new questions about ASEAN's ability to
manage regional conflicts. The organization does not demand a resolution to the
problem because non-intervention is the "ASEAN way", according to security
analyst Andrew Tan, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales
in Sydney. He says the border issue at Preah Vihear "is another manifestation
of the reality that underlies the outward expression of regional comity
expressed through various ASEAN declarations".
Comity has so far been in short supply. Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya in
March referred to Hun Sen as a "gangster" in the local media. Thai Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's rhetoric has vacillated between conciliatory and
confrontational. His request that the UN's world heritage committee consider
jointly registering the temple angered Phnom Penh.
Domestic politics have contributed to the conflict. Hun Sen's perceived close
friendship with deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who from exile
has in recent months stirred anti-government street chaos in Bangkok, has
greatly strained bilateral relations. There have been unconfirmed reports that
Thaksin and his allies have met in Cambodia to discuss strategies.
Both anti-Thaksin yellow-shirt protestors and pro-Thaksin red-shirt protestors
have rallied at the temple in the past year. "Nationalist elements in Thailand
could choose to blow this up to distract attention from domestic political and
economic issues," said Tan.
Meanwhile, bluster from Phnom Penh has also fueled mistrust. In October, Hun
Sen vowed to turn the temple area into a "death zone" unless the Thai army
pulled back. He recently boasted that Cambodian forces at the temple are
equipped with modern ground-to-air missiles and vowed to shoot down any Thai
fighter jets that breached Cambodian air space.
He also reportedly told Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and
Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon during their June visit to Phnom Penh that
they would need to mobilize between 30,000 and 50,000 soldiers to match 10,000
Such tough talk is clearly aimed at domestic audiences. "The Preah Vihear issue
provides a very convenient excuse to divert the international attention from
negative phenomena in [Cambodia], like reluctance to solve the problem of Khmer
Rouge legacy and reproaches against rampant corruption," said an ambassador
based in Bangkok. "It is a classic example of seeking a culprit away from one's
For Thailand, too, "the border problem provides an excellent excuse to divert
the public opinion from political woes," said the ambassador. While fighting
would hurt Thailand's international image, it would divert Thai attention away
from economic woes, political gridlock, and the pro-Thaksin street rallies that
continue to vex Abhisit's government. "Diplomats here are afraid things may
spin out of control, as escalation of hostilities seems quite presumable," the
Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep's July 4 visit to Cambodia, combined with a
series of military meetings and a photogenic lunch date at the temple on July
5, demonstrated the desire of both countries to maintain peace at the temple,
said Koy Kuong, Cambodia's Foreign Affairs Ministry undersecretary of state.
High-level Thai and Cambodian military officials met on July 9 and "promised
that we won't fight again and that we will find a peaceful solution", according
to Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Chhum Socheat. He
added that the two sides agreed to talk again in Bangkok during a meeting of
the General Border Committee from July 21-23.
Teruo Jinnai, head of Unesco's Phnom Penh office, regards the recent meetings
as a "positive development" towards resolving the standoff. "I hope this new
trend will continue," he said.
Yet despite those diplomatic overtures, Thailand has according to Cambodian
sources in recent weeks built concrete-enforced trenches and doubled its troop
level to 4,000. On July 10, according to Thai sources, Cambodia deployed six
tanks to the area, adding to its already 9,000-strong soldier presence. And
while Thai and Cambodian troops are for now back to picnicking and playing
games together, more conflict is likely in the cards.
Stephen Kurczy is an Asia Times Online contributor based in Cambodia. He
may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.