There appears to have been no more fighting on the Thai-Cambodian border overnight – both sides have taken some small steps towards achieving confidence-building measures, through joint patrols and some continued negotiations. On the other hand, reinforcements still appear to be entering the area and it is far from clear that there will not be more and more intense fighting. It is unfortunate indeed that Thai Army Chief General Anupong Paojinda has chosen this moment to start politicking by undermining the democratically-elected government and, so it is becoming widely thought, planning yet another military coup (which, in a financial crisis, would be a disaster beyond imagining).
Relations between Thailand and Cambodia have never been very warm: this article by Charnvit Kasetsiri, a leading historian, entitled Thailand-Cambodia: A Love Hate Relationship is helpful in understanding the background.
Cambodians remember the Thai attitude during the Khmer Rouge period, when asylum seekers were forced back across the border, many shot and killed and many other acts of barbarity conducted – the Thai view of events is of course different.
Relationships are not helped by hare-brained ideas in Thailand to promote even more ignorant nationalism among schoolchildren by using textbooks which, among other monstrosities, portray Cambodian people as inherently untrustworthy. I know that if I ask my students to name a Cambodian person or celebrity or even one or two words of the Cambodian language they will be unable to do so.
Let’s see if the situation remains stable throughout the day.
Another border skirmish took place yesterday between Thai and Cambodian troops. Reports are, as ever, contradictory and inconclusive but it seems that two Cambodian soldiers were killed, five Thais wounded and some soldiers captured by the other side (I have seen this described as Cambodians captured and Thais captured – not sure which is which). Now reinforcements are being rushed to the area, including more heavy artillery. Jet fighters are on standby in Thailand and presumably the same is true in Cambodia.
The Phnom Penh Post adds that a Thai helicopter opened fire on Cambodian troops who responded with anti-aircraft weapons.
The reason why the troops are in the area at all and prepared for fighting is because of the Preah Vihear temple. This Khmer-built temple belongs to Cambodia (according to internationally binding legal decisions as well as history and tradition) but access is only really possible from the Thai side. Ownership has been disputed off and on over the years and tension breaks out from time to time, usually when someone has some reason to call for a nationalist response.
In recent months, the ringleaders of the extreme right-wing PAD mob have been stirring up nationalist sentiment by claiming that the temple belongs to Thailand, should be seized and other inflammatory, cynical lies. Two Thai soldiers subsequently lost legs in landmine explosions – yet more blood on the hands of the Pad mob leaders.
This week, Cambodian PM Hun Sen, usually described as something of a ‘strong man,’ suddenly upped the ante by declaring that Thai troops must withdraw within 24 hours or else his troops would turn the area into a ‘battle zone of death.’ Quite why he escalated the tension (and hence yesterday’s fighting) is not clear. People are assuming there is some internal reason which is not clear to outsiders and that means, by definition, we don’t know what it is.
The Thai government has instructed Thai people involved in non-essential activities to return home and hundreds of gamblers in the semi-legal border casinos have been returning, carrying their winnings or their losses prematurely declared.
The region is being described as calm at the moment. It goes without saying, of course, that both sides blame each other.
The Thai-Cambodian border conflict has suddenly reached new heights of alarm after Cambodian PM has issued an ultimatum calling on Thai troops to withdraw within 24 hours or else face the area becoming a ‘life and death battle zone.’ Concerned Cambodian young men have, apparently, been signing up for the armed forces, some of which appear to be semi-official organizations made up of former Khmer Rouge fighters, if I read it correctly. The visit by the new Thai Foreign Minister (we have had quite a few recently) to Phnom Penh appears to have been unsuccessful. Even so, the sudden announcement by Hun Sen seems surprising – is there some internal conflict or division which he is seeking to overcome by this call for nationalism? I have written before that one of the big problems is the almost complete lack of knowledge that Thai and Cambodian people have of each other – if I ask my students to name one Cambodian celebrity or one word of Khmer language they look at me as if I were a very strange creature (which may be justified, of course). Attempts by the Education Ministry to whip up nationalism here by printing textbooks depicting Cambodians as inherently untrustworthy does not help.
Sometimes it can appear that everything I think is wrong – so many voices try to justify the exact opposite of what appears to be the self-evident truth that it can be disorienting. Well, the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said so a little re-evaluation is not always a bad thing. However, some events show that my beliefs are not that far wrong, or at least not all of the time. So, congratulations to Paul Krugman for winning the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2008. The prize citation relates to Krugman’s work in trade patterns and locations of economic activity but many people will relate the prize to his opinion pieces in the New York Times (syndicated in the Bangkok Post, also), which have relentlessly picked apart the faulty reasoning and occasional bald lies proposed by the right wing ideologues who have dominated American public life since the time of the Reagan disaster.
In the past, Thai kings like their counterparts in Vietnam and Cambodia had little real interest in geographical borders on maps. The land was difficult to cross and the population was thinly spread away from the main urban centres. The power of a king depended on his ability to mobilize an army or the labour to build a monument or a new town. This power largely relied on the king’s relations with princes and governors of other towns.
This changed during the colonial period. The French, colonizing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, started to draw maps of the region and to use western methods to work out who owned what and where. The Thai court went along with this with the usual endless compromising and ‘bamboo diplomacy,’ largely because it seemed irrelevant.
So, we have today’s situation in which the border is uncertain and disputed. Jungle and mountains do not matter much but the situation of Wat Preah Vihear is different. The Cambodian government is trying to get this wat, which is a particularly fine specimen of its type, recognised by the United Nations (in the form of UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site and has submitted a map to the Thai government showing that it is within Khmer territory.
This will be agreed sooner or later since there is little doubt that the wat is actually of Khmer provenance and the Cambodian people are very twitchy about these things – it was only a couple of years ago that a few comments made by a Thai actress supposedly claiming the wat as Thai rapidly led to anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh and the burning of Thai businesses.
While the people may get worked up about who owns the wat, the real issue lies in the Gulf of Thailand. Both sides are aware that there are more reserves of oil and gas to be located in the Gulf in seas which are not definitely allocated either to Cambodia or Thailand. The real importance of the negotiations, therefore, is to act as a precedent for dividing the seas and the precious hydrocarbons lying waiting underneath them.