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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 3 / Asia

Cambodia’s Elections Turn Sour

Cambodia’s electoral process re-lit the candle of democracy that had first flickered into flame with the restoration of peace in 1991, after more than two decades of strife.

Executive Summary

Cambodia’s electoral process re-lit the candle of democracy that had first flickered into flame with the restoration of peace in 1991, after more than two decades of strife. The light was fanned by United Nations-organised elections in May 1993 and the establishment of a coalition government of former battlefield foes later that year, but it was almost extinguished by the bloody collapse of that fragile coalition in July 1997.

The Paris Peace Accords[fn]The U.N.-brokered accords were signed on 23 October 1991 by Cambodia’s four main warring factions and 19 nations (including the then six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and important donors). The accords provided for building a liberal democracy under the rule of law.
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, signed by Cambodia’s warring factions and underwritten by the international community in October 1993, committed its participants to take the democratic process a step further through elections organised by the Cambodians themselves in 1998. After a period of tense preparation, and in a climate tainted by allegations of voter intimidation and lack of opposition access to the media, the elections were finally held on 26 July 1998.

In many ways, it is a tribute to the determination of the international community and the Cambodians that these elections have taken place at all, given the enormous difficulties – both political and logistical – involved. But the optimism of election night rapidly gave way to anger and criticism as grave post-election problems have come to the surface.

The main opposition parties are refusing to accept the results of the elections until charges of wide-scale electoral fraud are adequately addressed. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, keen to win power legitimately after forcing itself into a coalition in 1993 and taking sole power by force last year, insists the elections were free and fair and cites international support for this assessment.

The CPP, which officially won more than 50 percent of seats with less than 50 percent of the vote in these elections, and some foreign governments want to see a new coalition formed. The international community, keen to move on and frustrated at Cambodia’s lingering internal political unrest, wants stability to return to the trouble- torn nation. Hun Sen seeks stability and legitimacy, but the current political impasse and increasing confrontation with the opposition jeopardises those goals. As the political battle over the election outcome grows more fierce, there is a mounting risk that unrest will boil over into violence. Cambodia is stalled in a highly precarious situation.

While some of the confrontational tactics of the opposition have been irresponsible and inflammatory, their demand for a more thorough and open investigation of complaints by the organisers and arbiters of the polls, the National Election Committee (NEC) and the Constitutional Council, cannot easily be brushed aside.

The patent lack of transparency of these institutions and their stubborn refusal to address serious questions raised by the opposition have stoked the post-polls instability and put the credibility of the electoral process into question. They should make redress by adequately investigating and answering the complaints, both to restore their own credibility and to revive international and domestic confidence in the electoral process.

The opposition complaints, whether they prove to be substantiated or not, legally and morally deserve honest consideration. At the same time, the CPP should remain tolerant of dissent and not fear investigations if it has nothing to hide, while the rivals should seek compromise, rather than entrenching themselves in ever widening and confrontational positions.

Cambodia’s bid to take up its suspended seat in the United Nations, join the Association of Southeast Asian and reopen the gates to millions of dollars in development aid are all at risk in the short term unless the current political crisis can be resolved.[fn]The credentials committee of the United Nations is due to meet ahead of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month to discuss Cambodia’s membership, while ASEAN had hoped to admit Cambodia as a member before its summit meeting in Hanoi in December. ASEAN foreign ministers are also expected to discuss Cambodia’s application later this month and many expect them to follow the U.N. lead. The Thai Foreign Ministry warned in a statement on 18 August 1998 that continued delay in forming a new government could obstruct Cambodia’s full entry into the nine-member regional body.
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 But democracy could be the long-term loser if Cambodia’s problems are swept under the carpet.

The international community, meanwhile, should not see the elections as the end of its involvement in effort to steer Cambodia towards a brighter future. In developing a future strategy of support, it is essential that donors look at what is best for the medium- to long-term survival of the democratic process, and should not divorce the goal of stability from that of democracy.

This report, third in ICG’s series on Cambodia’s elections, examines developments before, during and since the 26 July 1998 polls and offers suggestions aimed at averting short term instability and at anchoring long term peace, reconciliation and development. Specific policy recommendations are set out in the final section of the report.

Phnom Penh/Brussels, 10 September 1998

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