Marking time on the Thai-Cambodian border conflict
Marking time on the Thai-Cambodian border conflict
Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend
Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Commentary / Asia

Marking time on the Thai-Cambodian border conflict

On 18 July 2011, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Thailand and Cambodia to “immediately withdraw their military personnel” in the provisional demilitarised zone (PDZ) it created around the Preah Vihear temple, scene of a long-festering territorial dispute between the two countries. Last week, a year to the day of that order, the two sides with some pomp and ceremony replaced the soldiers on these frontlines with police and paramilitary border guards. While the word “immediate” seems to have its own meaning in this part of the world, it is good news. This belated bilateral agreement is starting to defer to the court’s decision last year and it will turn down the temperature of this simmering conflict. It might also allow for the deployment of a neutral ASEAN observer force; Indonesian soldiers have been on stand-by to fulfil this role for over a year now – their deployment would mark a new and positive chapter in proactive ASEAN peacemaking.

Fighting around the World Heritage listed Preah Vihear and two other nearby border temples flared in February and April 2011. In a clash unusual for the region, two treaty allies and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) briefly went to war, exchanging tens of thousands of artillery rounds, including cluster munitions. The fighting in 2011 killed an estimated 28 people, maimed many others, and led to the temporary displacement of tens of thousands.

As we analysed in our December 2011 report Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict, the friction that led to the fighting fuelled by Thai domestic politics, much of the heat went out of this conflict after the change of government in Bangkok in July that year. But despite this political shift, the underlying conflict was not resolved and the situation on the border did not immediately change. It remained over-militarised and often unnecessarily tense. Earlier this month there were reports, later denied by the Thais, of Cambodian troops shooting at a circling Thai airliner thinking it was a surveillance drone. The border dispute can never be solved by force but only through painstaking talks and surveys that are needed for its final demarcation. Having soldiers too close to each other also impedes a long-term grand plan of making all of ASEAN’s border zones of economic “connectivity” rather than the frontlines as many of them were during the Cold War.

The withdrawal announcement came after a meeting on 13 July between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra in Siem Reap. Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul then gave more details after a 16 July meeting that the Royal Thai Army also planned to redeploy troops from the area. His announcement followed talks between senior Thai security officials to discuss implementation of the ICJ order and the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the Indonesian Observers Team (IOT). This needed to be done before the 54-year-old case goes back to the ICJ for more oral arguments on 15 – 19 April 2013 related to the ongoing Cambodian request to have the court once and for all define the borderline around the temple. On 18 July, Cambodia Defence Minister Tea Banh made it official in a speech at the temple, where 485 Cambodian soldiers drove off, to be replaced with 255 policemen and 100 temple guards. The two sides say they are planning to jointly demine the PDZ.

In a landmark passage of its July 2011 judgement – it must not be forgotten – the ICJ also ordered the parties to allow ASEAN appointed observers from Indonesia to have access to the disputed area, effectively to be its eyes and ears. The regional organisation had earlier set its own precedent by agreeing to such a monitoring mission in February after the initial clashes around Preah Vihear. Foreign Minister Surapong said the 16 July meeting resolved that the foreign affairs and defence ministries would jointly consider the rules for the Indonesians before submitting it to cabinet. It would be forwarded to parliament for approval in accordance with Article 190 Paragraph 2 of the Constitution. As observed inWaging Peace, the turbulent domestic politics in Thailand and the cumbersome (and even questionable) constitutional process in that country have always been an obstacle. A Cambodia official told Crisis Group this week it is ready to unilaterally receive Indonesian observers, after having approved them in May last year. Indeed, it has a lonely official waiting and a post on the border ready to receive them replete with ASEAN and Indonesian flags flying.

While this conflict may be heading in the right direction, it is doing so slowly. Beyond questions of timing, the border dispute and the deployment of observers is another litmus test for the Yingluck administration and its relationship with the military. The agreement is a qualified triumph as once again the question is being asked: who is in charge? Thai military Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimapakorn told reporters on 20 July that observers were no longer needed. There appears to be some political demining still to be completed on the Thai side. Just like in 2011, the supreme commander, whose office oversees border affairs, seems to be out of step with the civilian government. Speaking as if he were the foreign minister he said: “Indonesia considers that if the two countries can talk, they will have no need to come in, and this is also the two nations’ stance”.

But is there still a need for the Indonesians? Crisis Group believes observers are still important to verify any agreement and prevent future turmoil. They also seem to still be on the trilateral agenda. On 19 July, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa met in Phnom Penh with his veteran Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong to try and unravel another regional conflict in theSouth China Sea. A senior Indonesian official told Crisis Group that the ministers found time to discuss the plan to send observers to the Thai-Cambodian border, which was still being actively considered as they waited for the Thais to approve the TOR. In the meantime, the agreement to redeploy troops was a welcome development for South East Asia, with observers, anyway, just being a means to an end, which was peace.

This is coded language for all the parties not to expect too much, too soon. For foreigners living in Thailand this might be another illustration of “Thai time”, although Thais themselves would probably disagree that they have a punctuality problem. Indonesia, home to the culture of jam karet or rubber time, appears to be relaxed with this modest pace of progress. As Natalegawa becomes something of an expert on regional shuttle diplomacy, he knows all too well that even when ASEAN is “aggressively waging peace” it will do so at its own measured tempo.

Report 8 / Asia

Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend

Almost a decade after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, Cambodia is at peace and the government is at last secure enough to contemplate the trials of some Khmer Rouge leaders.

Executive Summary

Almost a decade after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements,[fn]Nineteen countries signed the Agreements:  Australia, Brunei, Canada, the People’s Republic of China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the USSR, the United Kingdom, the United States, Vietnam and (representing the Non-Aligned Movement) YugoslaviaHide Footnote Cambodia is at peace and the government is at last secure enough to contemplate the trials of some Khmer Rouge leaders.  The country has a coalition government that is stable, has reclaimed its seat at the United Nations (UN), and has become a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  It is posting 4 per cent annual economic growth rates and making modest strides in economic reform.  Clearly the country has moved forward: it is intact, it is without internal or external threats, and it has the necessary framework for good government.

Given the gulf that existed between the political groupings of Cambodia in 1991 when the Paris Accords were signed, and the lack of a liberal, democratic tradition in the country, the existence of a stable coalition government by the year 2000 could be seen as an important first step in achieving the potential offered by the 1991 settlement.  But this judgment must remain considerably clouded given the systematic resort to political violence and abuse of process by key players to get to this point.  Cambodian politicians could have done better.  There is peace but the majority of Cambodians are still waiting for their peace dividend, and many believe that it will never come.  Social welfare is virtually non-existent and the national economy has little prospect of supporting the growing adult population. 

Cambodia remains a strongman’s state, replete with lawlessness, human rights abuses, grinding poverty, bloated security forces and an economy thriving on prostitution, narcotics trafficking, land grabbing and illegal logging.  The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has now achieved long-sought legitimacy but this has come essentially by default – by marginalising political opposition, wearing down donors and diplomats, and maintaining a lock on power through the military and local government offices.

The government has pledged itself to an ambitious agenda for growth and reform, yet it remains to be seen whether the CPP will deliver.  There is considerable room to believe that the CCP’s public commitment in a donors’ meeting in Tokyo in February 1999 to a program of political reform and social welfare is disingenuous.  In the most important areas of necessary reform foreshadowed in 1991, the government has made little progress.  The likelihood of large-scale violence or a collapse of government control is relatively low, but all parties cannot ignore the cumulative effects of ongoing abuses by the ruling party or the potentially explosive issues on the horizon.  Economic inequalities are increasing, and are being met more frequently with public protests against land grabbing and corruption.  Tensions within the armed forces are being exacerbated by attempts to reduce the size of the forces, while attempts to replace old guard local officials may unleash violence against their opponents.  One of the most sensitive, if not potentially traumatic, issues is the question of a tribunal for the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership.  The ruling party cannot agree within itself on the way forward, and any decision will elicit strong public response.  The government has yet to show consistent leadership on any of these major issues despite its commitment to donors to do so. 

The international community, deeply involved in pushing Cambodia to the horrors of 1975 and then in trying to bring it back, bears a particular responsibility for the state of the country.  Those who signed the 1991 Peace Agreements can take credit for finally drawing the teeth of the Khmer Rouge and bringing an end to the civil war, and those who have kept the country financially solvent in subsequent years can take much of the credit for the limited gains made.  But they should all be now honestly reviewing their role in creating and subsidizing the government that today controls the country.

ICG’s previous report on Cambodia[fn]‘Back from the Brink’, 26 January 1999. This report, like all ICG reports, is available on the website Footnote  emphasised the importance of breaking the cycle of impunity, stepping up preparations for local elections and reforming public finances by shifting excessive military spending to social sectors.  These recommendations still hold, although none has been addressed effectively by the Cambodian government or the donor community.

Phnom Penh/Brussels, 11 August 2000

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