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Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict
Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 4 / Asia

Back from the Brink

The international community collectively heaved a sigh of relief when Cambodia’s rival factions moved back from the brink of disaster and agreed to form a fresh coalition government in November 1998 after weeks of violent protests and political deadlock.

Executive Summary

The international community collectively heaved a sigh of relief when Cambodia’s rival factions moved back from the brink of disaster and agreed to form a fresh coalition government in November 1998 after weeks of violent protests and political deadlock.

But optimism is tempered by the knowledge that a previous shaky alliance between the two political parties forming the coalition – the powerful Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the royalist FUNCINPEC party – was torn apart by fighting in July 1997.

Moreover, the renewed power-sharing agreement follows weeks of bitter and at times violent protests by opposition supporters who claimed the CPP victory in elections on 26 July 1998 was the product of widespread electoral fraud.

ICG addressed the electoral process and post-polls stand-off in its recent report, Cambodia’s Elections Turn Sour, published 10 September 1998. The present report follows the tortuous path that led to the formation of a coalition government in November. It also looks ahead at the prospects for the coalition -- between two parties who regard each other as rivals rather than partners -- lasting out its five-year mandate intact.

This will largely depend on the ability of the two sides to learn from past mistakes, to set aside their mutual mistrust and to show real commitment to working together to resolving the host of overwhelming problems that plague the small Southeast Asian nation. High on the list of issues to be addressed are a stagnant economy, unrelenting and spreading poverty, rampant and illegal deforestation, general lawlessness, drug trafficking, corruption, a cumbersome and ineffective administration, widespread impunity, lack of legislation and a weak judiciary.

The coalition agreement and the apparent final demise of the Maoist Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement mean that the country is enjoying real peace for the first time in three decades. But the surrender of most of the surviving members of its top leadership has once again focussed attention on bringing to justice those behind the atrocities of the movement’s 1975-79 rule. The government is caught between the need for peace and reconciliation on the one hand and the desire of the Cambodian people for justice and a statement against impunity on the other.  Cambodia needs  to get to grips with its past while establishing a foundation for a stable future.

In many ways the chances for success are greater than in 1993, when FUNCINPEC and CPP first tried working together, as there will only be one premier, a political platform has been agreed on before and officials are more experienced. Moreover, Cambodia should have a true parliamentary opposition for the first time in its modern history.

In the final section of this report, ICG sets out a number of specific areas where action by the new coalition government is most urgent. In particular, the report calls on the government to:

  • Break the cycle of impunity by arresting and bringing to justice the veteran leaders of the Khmer Rouge as well as perpetrators of recent political violence;
  • Take Cambodia’s democratisation process forward by stepping up preparations for crucial local elections due this year; and
  • Reform public finances by boosting internal revenue and shifting public expenditure away from the military and police in favour of under-funded socio- economic sectors such as education, health, agriculture and judicial reform.

The international donor community, meanwhile, should maintain maximum pressure on the government in Phnom Penh to tackle the country’s deep- rooted problems and deliver on its election promises. Donors should wait until the coalition seems to be working well before rushing in with new offers of assistance. The release of future development aid should be tied to  the  achievement of specific policy objectives and the provision of funds paced to match the speed with which the government acts to meet its commitments.

Democracy has been given a second chance in Cambodia and all sides must be aware that this could be their last opportunity to move the country forward with the continuing blessing and assistance of the international community, which has invested vast financial and human resources into the country over the past decade.

Phnom Penh, 26 January 1999

Report 215 / Asia

Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict

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.

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Executive Summary

Border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia that caused dozens of casualties and displaced thousands have challenged the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to finally turn its rhetoric on peace and security into action. Cambodia’s successful attempt to list the Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site came against the backdrop of turmoil in Thai politics after the 2006 coup that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thai pro-establishment movements used this issue to whip up nationalist sentiments against Cambodia as they tried to topple the Thaksin-backed government. The emotionally-charged campaigns halted border demarcation and sparked a bilateral conflict. In early 2011, the dispute turned into the most violent clash yet between ASEAN’s members, testing its historical commitment to non-aggression and prompting it to get involved. This has raised expectations that it might live up to its stated aspiration to keep peace in its own region. As yet, however, while its engagement set important precedents, it has no significant achievements. More robust diplomacy and leadership are still needed.

The resurgence of a largely forgotten 50-year dispute into an active armed conflict was related to two events: the colour-coded struggle in Thailand between the pro-establishment “Yellow Shirts” and the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” sparked after Thaksin’s ouster in the September 2006 coup; and the decision of Cambodia to register Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, which UNESCO accepted in July 2008. In Cambodia, the listing was occasion for national joy and Khmer pride. In Thailand, the ultra-nationalist Yellow Shirts used it to argue that Thaksin’s proxy administration led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had sold out their motherland and committed treason. It became a powerful weapon to further their agenda, forcing the foreign minister to resign and destabilising the government. They successfully portrayed backing for the listing as a move to further Thaksin’s business interests, despite this policy having been supported by the previous military-installed administration. Until the Yellow Shirts’ attacks, bureaucrats on both sides had seen the listing as a mutual tourism bonanza.

The frontier became increasingly militarised and tense. Border survey and demarcation ground to a halt, as it became too dangerous to field joint teams. At the same time, political turmoil in Thailand led to a high turnover of foreign ministers and other senior officials. Nationalist lawsuits, controversial court rulings and constitutional provisions hamstrung the efforts of officials to negotiate and poisoned the bilateral relationship. Frustrated by this inaction and these obstructionist tactics, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, often lashed out and on one occasion appointed Thaksin as an adviser – an episode that was the political low point of a troubled period.

Despite the warning signs between 2008 and 2010, passivity rather than active peacemaking was the “ASEAN way”. After the outbreak of hostilities in 2011, the UN Security Council set a precedent by referring the issue back to ASEAN and its then chair, Indonesia, which showed how energetic and bold leadership could bring the association closer to what [some of] its supporters wished it might be. ASEAN broke more new ground after both sides agreed to receive teams of Indonesian observers to monitor a ceasefire.

Thailand’s civilian leaders initially agreed to the deployment but backtracked after its military resisted, claiming the observers would undermine sovereignty, a sign that the post-coup struggle for power is unresolved. Cambodia approved them in May, but Indonesia would not dispatch its monitors until both sides signed on. The election of Yingluck Shinawatra as Thailand’s prime minister in July 2011 was expected to be a turning point, but was not. Even a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that ordered the creation of a provisional demilitarised zone around the temple and called on ASEAN to monitor a troop withdrawal did not remove political obstacles. Then in October, Thailand was crippled by the worst flooding in living memory, leaving the government overwhelmed. With the waters now subsiding, Thailand and Cambodia need to recommit to complying with the ICJ decision as soon as possible.

ASEAN aimed to stop hostilities and restart negotiations when it took up the border issue in early 2011. While there has been no fighting on the border since May, the ceasefires in place are mostly verbal and unsigned. Until troops are verifiably withdrawn and diplomats resume negotiations, this conflict is not over. But in trying to resolve it, ASEAN, under Indonesia’s leadership, has laid out a methodology for dealing with future disputes. If it wants to fulfil its stated goal of taking responsibility for its own peace and security, it needs to use its existing mechanisms at the first sign of trouble and not just rely on an activist chair. The Thai-Cambodian conflict remains an active challenge for ASEAN, which must achieve a certifiable peace on this disputed border if it wishes to keep its own region secure in the future.

Bangkok/Jakarta/Brussels, 6 December 2011