Marking time on the Thai-Cambodian border conflict

Cambodian troops take part in military withdrawal ceremony near the Preah Vihear temple, July 18, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

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 in Waging 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 inPhnom 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.

Author: Jim Della-Giacoma

Jim Della-Giacoma joined Crisis Group in April 2009 as South East Asia Project Director. He oversees the organisation's work in this region, including staff based in Indonesia, Thailand, and Timor-Leste. You can follow Jim on Twitter @jimdella.