Indonesian observers have arrived on the Thai-Cambodian border in a
multilateral bid to monitor the implementation of a tentative ceasefire between
the two sides. The fight has called into question the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) core "no-war" policy and caused the regional grouping to
rethink its long held policy of non-interference in member states' internal
Armed hostilities between Thailand and Cambodia in February resulted in the
deaths of at least 11 and displacement of thousands of villagers in the area.
Preah Vihear, the 11th century
temple at the center of the territorial dispute, as well as another nearby
temple, suffered significant damage from shellfire and small arms.
The fighting was the heaviest since border tensions escalated in 2008, and this
time threatened to spread beyond the contested 4.6 kilometer area around the
temple into a full-scale border war. Thai and Cambodian military and government
officials claimed they acted only in self-defense and accused each other of
starting the shooting, which involved small arms, rocket propelled grenades and
exchanges of artillery fire.
A 1962 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded the temple
to Cambodia, but did not stipulate who owns the land adjacent to the temple.
The issue largely remained dormant until 2008 when Phnom Penh applied to the
United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for
World Heritage status for the temple, a move that stoked nationalist sentiment
ASEAN aims to settle disputes before they spiral and maintains a no war policy
among its members. True to that credo, there here have been no open wars
between ASEAN members since its founding in 1967 and all member countries are
signatories to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which has been adopted
as the region's code of conduct. The grouping has in the past helped to diffuse
a series of border disputes and other bilateral issues.
Some analysts believe ASEAN's mediation of the current dispute between Thailand
and Cambodia could set a precedent for future conflict resolution in the
region. The grouping is not known for taking proactive measures on security and
political issues and has often swept nettlesome issues under the carpet in the
interest of group harmony. Although this stance has helped the grouping to
mature, become more cohesive and a relatively respected international player,
it has failed to establish structures to deal with issues when they go beyond
If allowed to spiral into open war, the dispute between Bangkok and Phnom Penh
not only threatened to destabilize the region but could also have lead to a
breakdown in ASEAN as a security community. Rather than work through ASEAN's
perceived as ineffectual security mechanisms, member nations could decide to
resort to force to settle issues or seek solutions outside the ASEAN framework.
On the other hand, a successful mediation of the dispute would provide ASEAN
with enhanced credibility on issues that affect the peace and stability of the
region. It would also further cement ASEAN as the key linchpin in several
security structures, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit,
Asia-Europe Meeting, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the ASEAN Defense
Ministers Forum (ADMM) and the ADMM Plus Eight.
The United Nations gave ASEAN its implicit support following a February 14
meeting on the dispute at the UN Security Council (UNSC). While the council was
willing to hear both countries' versions of the dispute and urged a bilateral
ceasefire, it made no binding statements. Instead it gave its backing to the
efforts of Indonesian foreign minister and current ASEAN chairman Marty
Natalegawa. Closed door discussions between Thailand's and Cambodia's foreign
ministers, Natalegawa and UNSC president Maria Luiza Ribiero Viotti of Brazil
were held on the sidelines of the UNSC meeting.
Natalegawa had already earned praise for his quick initiative in travelling to
Bangkok and Phnom Penh to push for talks between the two countries to end the
conflict and his participation at the UNSC. Throughout his negotiations,
Natalegawa has made clear that the issue should be settled bilaterally, but "at
the same time, there is always space for ASEAN and members of ASEAN to support
the bilateral effort".
Natalegawa followed up by calling a meeting of foreign ministers from all 10
ASEAN nations in Jakarta on February 22. An agreement was reached that built on
a ceasefire agreed between military commanders on February 20 and acted on
Thailand's suggestion the next day of embedding Indonesian observers with units
on both sides to monitor the ceasefire. While no permanent ceasefire has been
signed, ASEAN observers are seen as a first step and a sign of commitment to
the ceasefire. It was also agreed that further bilateral talks with Indonesian
participation will be held in the near future.
Up to 40 Indonesian military and civilian observers are scheduled to "embed"
with Thai and Cambodian military forces stationed at the border. The
arrangement does not create a buffer zone, but provides for monitors to report
back to the ASEAN chairman as well as to Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Natalegawa has
made it clear that the observers are "not a peace-keeping or a peace
enforcement team". At the same time, he has characterized the intervention as a
"seminal development in ASEAN's capacity to deal with a conflict situation."
Significantly, ASEAN's maneuvers have received the backing of both the United
States and China. Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a regular
press briefing, "China appreciates and supports Indonesia's active mediation
efforts to tackle the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict under the ASEAN
US State Department spokesman P J Crowley said during a regular press briefing
on February 23 that the US welcomed "ASEAN's efforts under the leadership of
Indonesia" and supported the call of ASEAN foreign ministers for Cambodia and
Thailand to resume bilateral negotiations "at the earliest opportunity".
That said, there is still the potential for Thai and Cambodian domestic
politics - widely viewed as the driving force behind the ramped up dispute - to
undermine ASEAN's mediation efforts towards a permanent solution. But with
ASEAN observers present and the recognition that peaceful resolution of the
issue is not only in the best interest of Thailand and Cambodia, but also ASEAN
as a whole, there is powerful multilateral incentive to avoid further armed
Clifford McCoy is a freelance journalist.
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