Waiting for RI observers at Preah Vihear
Waiting for RI observers at Preah Vihear
Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend
Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Op-Ed / Asia

Waiting for RI observers at Preah Vihear

A year ago, Cambodia and Thailand fought a series of short but nasty skirmishes along their joint border. Efforts to reduce tensions through the deployment of Indonesian observers remain stillborn; one year on there are no observers and on the Cambodian side there is just a lone man with Indonesian and ASEAN flags blowing in the breeze.

The dispute, centered on the emblematic Preah Vihear Temple - in Cambodian territory but down the years oft-claimed by Thailand - was serious enough to seize the attention of the UN Security Council.

It also triggered signs that ASEAN wanted a more proactive role in ensuring stability in its region. This optimism, however, has given way to stasis and further questioning of the organization's ability to look after
its own backyard.

Earlier this month, I met an official from Cambodia's National Task Force whose job is to prepare the ground for the observers' arrival.

After I traveled four hours north from Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor ruins, he picked me up in his new Mitsubishi flat bed with ASEAN logo decals and license plate: IOT 3.

IOT is for Indonesia Observer Team. Under the terms of reference signed by Cambodia in May 2011 ahead of the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, there were to be 15 Indonesian soldiers and civilians on either side of the border.

Thailand has not signed the agreement and it never came into force. Then foreign minister Kasit Piromya initially announced Bangkok's agreement to the observer mission's deployment but objections from the military caused the historic deal to falter.

First, Thailand quibbled over the team's location, their name, their diplomatic status and what they would wear. Then Thai generals said they would not accept Indonesian soldiers in uniform on their soil as it was an
affront to their sovereignty.

A special meeting convened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the sidelines of the summit could not remove the roadblock. A July 2011 decision of the International Court of Justice ordering their deployment was ignored.

The narrow interests of the Thai military trumped ASEAN's potential collective goal of coming up with a working mechanism to deal with violent conflict within its own membership.

Back in Cambodia's far north, on the border near Preah Vihear, bored Cambodian soldiers stare across the valley at their Thai counterparts; who seem, likewise, to have little else to do but in turn stare back. To occupy their time they eat, sleep, converse, play cards; it is too brutally hot to exercise. Some say they just want to go home.

After visiting the World Heritage temple site, we visited the empty headquarters of the ASEAN Mission for Cease-Fire Observation. The red and white Indonesian flag is everywhere. Had the Indonesians arrived, I asked?

No. What did my guide do all day? He waited for the Indonesians, was the response; he did not expect them anytime soon. This poor fellow, originally from Kompong Cham, Cambodia's border province with Vietnam many miles away, was like a sad facsimile of a character from a Conrad novel - sent out to the back of beyond by his bosses and, perhaps, forgotten.

A few days after my visit, on March 5, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his Indonesian opposite number Marty Natalegawa met in Phnom Penh and reportedly discussed the IOT, but most officials in the capital seemed to want to forget about this problem in the year that is Cambodia's turn to chair ASEAN, and as Phnom Penh's efforts to secure a temporary seat on the UN Security Council intensify. Such is his life that my friend from the National Task Force waits for something that may never arrive.

But even if they were deployed, the observers would only solve part of the problem, as their area of operations only covers Preah Vihear and its environs, particularly the almost 18 square km provisional demilitarized area created by the ICJ decision.

Around 150 km to the west, troops from both countries face off against each other around the more obscure temples of Ta Moan and Ta Krabei. They are heavily armed, well dug-in, and so close that at Ta Moan they even share the same shade from the trees.

This is not sustainable - it is simply too risky that firefights could be triggered, even if only accidentally. Visiting Ta Moan, it was difficult to accept that Thailand and Cambodia, under the ASEAN umbrella, had sworn undying friendship toward each other.

The world's focus has shifted elsewhere, but here on this disputed frontier the conflict continues. The week before my visit gunshots terrified the residents of a nearby town; they turned out only to be soldiers shooting harmlessly into the air - last year's fighting suggests such noises might not always be so benign.

But rather than wait for the conflict to reignite and cause problems again for Cambodia, Thailand and ASEAN, there is a first step that could be taken toward preventing future misunderstandings and violent conflict - deploy the observers.

The flags are flying, the maps are posted, vehicles are fueled and, on the border, there is a lonely Cambodian official ready and waiting to provide a welcome.

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 www.crisisweb.org.Hide 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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