Thai-Cambodian Tension Tests Claims of Regional Peace


BANGKOK — The relationship between Southeast Asian neighbors Thailand and Cambodia enters another uneasy stretch following a round of verbal salvoes fired before and during a just concluded regional summit, where much is made of strides in achieving unity.

The Thai media had also stepped into the fray to take on the comments made by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that appeared to get under the skin of the Thai government, host of the 15th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which ran from Oct. 23-25.

A demonstrator holds a banner with pictures of exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a rally outside the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok on October 27. (Photo: Reuters)

On Tuesday, one Thai commentator described Hun Sen as a “big bully” for the remarks he made just before flying into Cha-am, the resort town south of Bangkok where the Asean summit was held, and soon after he landed.

“Hun Sen Shows Lack of Class and Tact,” declared the headline of an editorial in a Sunday newspaper. It seethed with anger about the Cambodian leader’s “provocative remarks.”

Hun Sen, the region’s longest-serving premier, upset the Thais by publicly throwing his weight behind Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai premier who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now living in exile to avoid arrest after being found guilty of violating conflict of interest laws.

Cambodia will offer Thaksin a home, Hun Sen said, before arriving in Cha-am, and then added that Phnom Penh would not extradite the fugitive ex-Thai leader if Bangkok made a request. The increasingly authoritarian Cambodian leader also revealed a role he had for the like-minded Thaksin in the future Cambodia—as an economic advisor.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva shot back. “Don’t allow anybody to use you as a pawn,” he said at a press conference toward the end of the summit, where the outcome of the 10-member regional bloc was to have been the focus.

“If former prime minister Thaksin moves to Cambodia, it will have an effect on our relationship,” said Kasit Piromya, Thai foreign minister, in another press conference.

Both Abhisit and Kasit belong to a coalition government that was formed last year with the backing of Thailand’s powerful military. It followed a controversial court verdict that resulted in the collapse of a coalition government of Thaksin’s allies, who were elected at a December 2007 poll, the first since the 2006 putsch.

Thaksin has been making desperate bids to return to Thailand or to live in a country closer to home than in the Middle East, where he often resides. But he has made little headway with the members of the 42-year-old Asean due to the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a member country that binds this 10-member bloc.

Asean, which has just become a new rules-based unified entity, includes Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, in addition to Thailand and Cambodia.

The war of words that overshadowed the Asean summit added a new twist to an already testy relationship between the two countries that share an 800-kilometre border, much of it being disputed and not clearly marked because Thais and Cambodia use different maps.

The most visible symbol of the underlying tension between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms is a 10th century Hindu temple, Preah Vihear, that sits atop a steep cliff on the Thai-Cambodian border.

The temple was claimed by the French colonists who ruled Cambodia using a disputed 1907 map. After the French left, the Thai troops took over the temple but handed it back to Phnom Penh following a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. Since then troops from both countries have faced each other along the heavily mined border.

Since July last year, Preah Vihear has become a flashpoint, stoked by deep-seated nationalism on both sides. It followed a ruling by the World Heritage Committee that month that recognized the temple as a world heritage site and concurred with the ICJ’s ruling that the temple belonged to Cambodia.

Thai nationalists were enraged, prompting both Cambodian and Thailand to reinforce their military strength in the still contested land—some 4.6 square kilometers—surrounding the temple.

The Irrawaddy

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