Temple conflict isn't over; observers are still needed
Temple conflict isn't over; observers are still needed
Inside South East Asia’s Criminal Empire
Inside South East Asia’s Criminal Empire
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Temple conflict isn't over; observers are still needed

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) looked to be on the cusp of making history when its foreign ministers met on February 22, 2011 to discuss the unprecedented fighting between two member states. Thailand and Cambodia were exchanging enough artillery fire around the disputed Preah Vihear temple for some to call it a war.

Indonesia convened the ministers' meeting in an activist moment of preventative diplomacy that made a ground-breaking decision to deploy observers to monitor the ceasefire. But a year later, with no boots on the ground, this hollow victory has left Asean looking weaker, raised questions over whether the conflict is really over, and left a cloud over Thailand's international reputation.

It was the civilian Abhisit government that approved the observers ahead of the meeting, and then foreign minister Kasit Piromya who subsequently announced that Thailand would welcome the deployment of Indonesian monitors, but it did not take long for this sweet regional diplomatic triumph to turn sour.

The Thai military spoiled the moment by blocking them on the grounds that having foreigners on its soil would be an affront to national sovereignty.

In the face of such a strong sense of nationalism, it is now a hard case to make that Thailand should live up to its obligations made a year ago and allow the deployment of observers.

Within Asean itself, many have given up on this idea. There is little traction for such arguments in Bangkok that Thailand should worry about its international reputation when the political culture is so inward looking. But until observers are there, it remains on the record that Thailand is undermining the UN Security Council, ignoring Asean, and defying an order of the International Court of Justice, none of which are the mark of international good citizenship.

Undoubtedly, the calculation has been made in Bangkok that giving in to the powerful military's nationalistic arguments about "sovereignty" trumps the benefits of following international law. But Thailand should try to resist such rogue tendencies and aspire to think of the longer-term consequences of its actions. As a member of a regional economic community with growing common interests ahead of the 2015 integration deadline, it should act the way it wants others to behave the next time Thailand has an agenda to advance that requires cooperation from its neighbours.

Times are changing and Asean's borders will soon be more like zones of economic cooperation and trade rather than Cold War battle lines.

With the guns silent and the General Border Committee and Joint Border Committee having recently met, some now see monitors as redundant and argue that the problem is solved and best left as a bilateral matter. But such pragmatism is too myopic and it misses the larger significance of the February 22 meeting as a precedent for how Asean can address future conflicts. It also denies the fact that the dispute is actually still unresolved. While this is the case, the border issue is out there and susceptible to future manipulation for domestic political purposes. Until definitively demilitarised, a formal ceasefire in place, and border demarcation resumes, it cannot be assumed that it impossible for fighting to restart. Asean needs to have a working political mechanism to avoid flare-ups and solve such conflicts, as well as the means to properly monitor any agreements. In this context, observers are invaluable, including as an early warning system.

The inability to follow through with an agreement has undermined the credibility of the regional grouping. It also puts a question mark over Thailand's commitment to the regional body and important concepts such as the rule of law that should govern it. The July 2011 order of the International Court of Justice creating a provisional demilitarised zone was legally binding on Thailand and Cambodia. The court delegated the Asean observers to be its eyes and ears on the ground until it could hear the substantive case on the request for an interpretation on its 1962 ruling on the border around the Preah Vihear temple.

Thailand does have something to gain from allowing observers to deploy. It could help stop further internationalisation of the conflict. To defy this order so blatantly shows unnecessary disrespect for international institutions but also risks bringing the matter back to the UN Security Council, which acts like a court of last resort in these cases. Monitors would create a sense that all sides are being watched, which would encourage all sides to be on their best behaviour. The Thais have claimed in the past that the Cambodian military has been provocative, and monitors could provide the evidence of such alleged transgressions. They could help solve often-controversial claims and counter-claims about who shot first.

In the end, we cannot start to think the conflict is over until observers are on the ground. The history of this conflict since 2008 is one of many meetings, expressions of goodwill, and statements of friendship often followed within hours by the boom of artillery and the retort of rifle fire. There is no certainty this dispute is on the way to being resolved until the two parties start to dramatically change and stop deploying their armies against each other on their shared frontier. The deployment of observers would change the pattern of behaviour and be a clear sign that it is no longer business as usual on the border.

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