In an apparent breakthrough of the impasse over Thailand’s insistence that its border dispute had to be settled bilaterally, the Thai government has finally relented and agreed to allow unarmed Indonesian observers to monitor the area around the Preah Vihear temple.
The agreement is a victory for ASEAN and its current head the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa who took on a high profile role in mediating the dispute. After hosting a meeting between the Cambodian foreign minister and his Thai counterpart in Jakarta, Natalegawa announced that a unique arrangement had been reached to end the violent clashes between the two countries.
The foreign ministers, he says, have agreed to what he called an unofficial ceasefire, to allow in unarmed Indonesian military and civilian observers to enforce the ceasefire, and to hold further bilateral talks with Indonesian participation in the near future.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun a Thai academic at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies outlined 10 reasons why Thailand should sign up to mediation of this border dispute with Cambodia (http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3004&Itemid=185):
- First, Thailand’s acceptance of ASEAN’s mediating role would be a symbol of the country’s respect and confidence in the organization, especially its dispute settlement mechanism.
- Would demonstrate that Thailand firmly complies with ASEAN’s rules and regulations in finding a peaceful solution to an interstate conflict.
- Act to preserve the good image of and add a great sense of credibility to ASEAN.
- Show a willingness to minimize the scope of this conflict, thus preventing it from affecting the region’s peace and security.
- Demonstrate Thailand’s commitment to ASEAN’s goal of achieving a regional community by 2015.
- Help separate this bilateral conflict from the internal crisis within Thailand.
- Confer on ASEAN a central significance in the peace process.
- A dialogue with Cambodia would also assist in rebuilding mutual trust and understanding between the two countries.
- An agreement with a ceasefire would most importantly reduce casualties in both sides.
- If successful, ASEAN’s mediation would set a new precedent in the region’s peaceful settlement of bilateral conflict.
All this sounds good except one has to ask, if Thailand is unable to accept the adjudication of the International Court of Justice in 1962, how can it be expected to accept any mediation now – unless it gets its way?
In repudiating the ICJ ruling (which it had previously accepted), Thailand demonstrated its willingness not only to disregard any international process than it cannot dominate, but that at least some powerful groups in Thailand have ambitions to extend the borders of their country – to create “Suwarnabhumi” the dream of the Golden Land of Greater Thailand – that stretches across most of south east Asia.
One of the great, underrated achievement of the modern world has been a general willingness to accept the idea of border demarcation – greatly reducing traditional tensions in such areas. There are only a few examples of such remaining ‘hot spots’ left in the region, such as Russia’s occupation of Japan’s Kuril Islands (opportunistically seized in the dying moments of WWII) or China’s claim to ownership of the South China Sea.
The problem with Thailand’s claim to Preah Vihear and it’s surrounding territory is that it is based on the historical fact that once Thailand did control this world heritage site.
However, at one time or another Thailand also controlled vast swathes of Cambodian territory, last seized while Thailand was a Japanese ally during WWII, and commemorated by the Victory Monument in central Bangkok.
Similarly Cambodia could reasonably lay claim most of Thailand’s Korat Plateau – which was once part of the Angkorian Empire. Most of the ruins there, such as at Pimai outside of Nakhon Ratchasima, are of Khmer providence. However, Cambodia is not claiming these.
Though it might sound outrageous, if Thailand is able to bully its way into forcing its neighbour into somehow relinquishing part of its sovereign title to Preah Vihear, what is to stop Thailand from subsequently claiming Battambang and Siam Reap?
However, the latest development is positive.