Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict
6 Dec 2011
The violent border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia earlier this year have challenged the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to turn its rhetoric into action, but to achieve peace and security more robust diplomacy is required to end a still unresolved conflict.
Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses the politics of the dispute and the role of the ten-nation regional body. Cambodia's attempt to list the Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site came against the backdrop of turmoil in Thai politics sparked by the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) used the issue to whip up nationalist sentiments against the subsequent Thaksin-back government and Cambodia in 2008, halting border demarcation and setting off the deadly bilateral confrontation.
ASEAN’s engagement under Indonesia’s chairmanship after fighting in 2011 produced scores of casualties and displaced tens of thousand civilians broke new ground by deciding to dispatch observers to monitor a conflict between member states. But despite an order from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in July, deployment has yet to take place.
“ASEAN aimed to stop hostilities and restart negotiations when it engaged in the Preah Vihear dispute. While fighting on the Thai-Cambodian border has ceased since May, the ceasefire in place remains fragile”, says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, Crisis Group South East Asia Analyst. “Until troops are withdrawn, independent observers deployed and border negotiations resumed, the risk of new fighting remains”.
Although the ICJ awarded the eleventh-century temple to Cambodia in 1962, Thailand still claims the area in its immediate vicinity, as the border has not been demarcated. The almost dormant dispute came back to life after the PAD accused the Thaksin-allied government of treason for supporting Cambodia’s bid to list the ancient Hindu temple ruins as a World Heritage site. After the listing was approved in 2008, border clashes began and tensions were fuelled by the domestic political conflicts in Bangkok.
Following the first deadly clashes in 2011, Cambodia brought the conflict to the UN Security Council, which asked ASEAN to take the lead in resolving it. The regional body, with Thai and Cambodian consent, agreed to deploy Indonesian observers, but the initiative has been blocked by the parochial Thai military, which views it as a violation of Thai sovereignty.
With a history of broken piecemeal and mostly verbal ceasefires, peace will not be truly secured until there is a comprehensive written ceasefire. As the General Border Committee, the defence minister-led bilateral forum, is scheduled to meet soon after some delays, both countries should expedite the negotiation and start dispatching observers and withdrawing troops as ordered by the ICJ as soon as possible. Moreover, this border dispute underlines that ASEAN should be prepared to take more proactive and urgent action to prevent open hostilities between member states.
“In trying to resolve the Thai-Cambodian clash, ASEAN, under Indonesia’s leadership, has laid out a methodology for dealing with future problems”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group South East Asia Project Director. “But this conflict remains a live challenge. ASEAN must achieve a certifiable peace on the disputed border, if it wishes to keep its own region secure in the future”.