Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thailand and Cambodia Fighting a 'Real War'?

Analyst Matt Gertken examines how Thai political divisions and Cambodia's bid to bring in international mediators have heated up the ongoing territorial conflict between Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has declared that the conflict with Thailand on the border is a real war. Meanwhile the Thais are moving more tanks to the area and the issue is being caught up with international politics as well as Thailand's internal politics.
Thailand and Cambodia are ancient rivals and this particular dispute which is about a patch of land that really controls access to a disputed temple that's a world heritage site has flared in a number of times especially since 2008 when it received that official status from the UN. So it's not unusual for these two to spar back and forth. This time, however, the fighting was particularly intense; it lasted several days in a row, a number of casualties on both sides and a large number of villagers were evacuated from the area.
Domestic politics in both countries helped to drive into the point that they started fighting again. On the Thai side you have elections approaching which are supposed to be held in the first half of the year. These are very contentious elections and that's forced all the special-interest groups and factions in Thai politics to push on their major issues including the People's Alliance for Democracy, which is the yellow shirt group that helped bring the current government to power but really has kind of turned against it and is really driving this territorial and sovereignty issue hard hoping to put pressure on the current government to take a tougher stance against Cambodia.
And this is all taking place with the underlying fact that Thailand is going through a monarchical secession. The king hasn't died yet but he's very old and he's ruled for 65 years so as that transition takes place and the elections, in the more immediate sense, there's a lot of tension between Thailand's factions.
In Cambodia, seeing these divisions in Thailand and seeing the opportunity to take advantage of this particular dispute where Cambodia lacks in military strength is much less powerful than Thailand but has been able to attract a large international amount of attention to this. The Cambodians managed to go to the United Nations and get the Security Council to discuss it this time, which brings it to a higher level of attention. The United States has commented on it. Of course United States is conducting its major annual military exercises with Thailand at the moment so it's a little bit uneasy about the fact that the Thai military is involved with the conflict at the same time. And ASEAN the Association for Southeast Asian Nations has really dived in on this one. Even though ASEAN has dealt with the Thai Cambodian tensions before it really hasn't tried to be proactive. But the point is that you see multiple international actors starting to get involved in this dispute which really used to just be between Thailand and Cambodia.
The main thing to watch going forward is to see how well Thailand and Cambodia can contain the issue as they been able to do in the past, which means also containing domestic nationalism but at the same time we know that Cambodia has reasons to really take advantage of the fact that Thailand is embroiled in an ongoing internal political crisis. We certainly can't rule out the prospect of more fighting, although it tends to flare up based on the results of political calculations on both sides rather than just, you know, unmitigated conflict.

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