Friday, January 7, 2011

Thai Nationalist elements threaten to wreck Thai-Cambodia thaw

Patriotism sounds good in theory. In practice, it often drives nations into conflicts and even wars. The Thai Patriots Group, a faction that split from the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), is returning to the political limelight. This time, it is using the same arbitrary tactic: stirring up a sense of nationalism against Cambodia.

Thai-Cambodian relations have remained dangerously erratic, especially since the PAD politicised the case of the Preah Vihear Temple, known in Thai as Phra Wihan, to help unseat the Thaksin-backed regime in 2008. The successful politicisation of the issue reminded policy-makers of the inexorable connection between nationalism and diplomacy: The strength of the former is celebrated at the expense of the weakness of the latter.

Last week, Democrat MP Panich Vikitsreth and six other Thais, including PAD member Veera Somkwamkid, were arrested by the Cambodian authorities near the border in Sa Kaew province. The Thai Foreign Ministry admitted that they were actually inside Cambodian territory when the arrests took place.

Thai analysts were convinced that their encroachment into Cambodian territory was not accidental. It was part of a plan to provoke nationalistic feelings that could further damage the already fragile bilateral ties. They did not inform local Thai Army officials of their visit to the disputed area in Sa Kaew. Panich, as an MP, should have been more responsible and better aware of the negative repercussions of his actions on Thai relations with Cambodia.

Nationalism knows no bound. What happened at the border has unleashed a patriotic force in the Thai capital. A few days ago, members of the Thai Patriots gathered outside the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok to demand the release of the Thai group from a Phnom Penh jail. The protest included the burning of a coffin with a picture of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on it.

It is reported that Prime Minister Hun Sen is upset at the protests by this group linked to the PAD. He has always believed that there is an anti-Cambodia agenda within the PAD. He may have forgiven Kasit Piromya, then serving in the opposition, for humiliating him on a television talk show in October 2008. But surely Hun Sen will never forget.

True, Hun Sen is himself a forceful nationalist. In the past he has regularly employed nationalist strategies and tactics to achieve a variety of political goals at the expense of his country's ties with Thailand. His seeming reluctance to interfere in the arson attack on the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh in 2003 by so-called Cambodian patriots was just one way of demonstrating his nationalist principles.

In the current episode, both the Democrat-led government and the Thai Foreign Ministry are working to overcome great obstacles. These obstacles have been exacerbated by mutual distrust and the distortion of history by the two countries. The difficulty for the Thai Foreign Ministry is clear: Hun Sen has never been fond of Kasit, and Kasit's earlier association with the PAD has complicated Thai diplomacy vis-a-vis Cambodia.

Similarly, for the Democrat Party, its earlier support of nationalist protests against Cambodia revealed one dangerous and risky strategy: using international politics for domestic gain.

In 2008, Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the then opposition Democrat Party, provoked nationalist feelings by stressing in parliament: "I hope that all Thai MPs will show distrust of this government. I call on all MPs who are 'Thai' to vote against Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama for abusing their constitutional power involving the Preah Vihear issue. It is time for Thais to have a government that is grateful to its Thai ancestors and knows how to prioritise the nation's interests."

Since the Democrat Party came to power in late 2008, it has been unable to set aside certain nationalist tendencies. This attitude has undoubtedly boosted the PAD's confidence in challenging Hun Sen's leadership.

A large body of opinion has always argued that leaders have incentives to allow anti-foreign, jingoistic protests in order to gain domestic political points, even if they may lose diplomatic bargaining leverage by doing so.

Domestic constraints reduce the advantages in international negotiations. Anti-Cambodia protests, as an example, provide an alternative mechanism by which domestic political objectives can be fulfilled. But at the same time, they deepen bilateral conflicts. In this case they open the door for Cambodia, a smaller nation, to raise its diplomatic leverage as it interacts with Thailand.

The government may argue that it knew nothing about its own MP and his plan to instigate renewed Thai nationalism against Cambodia. But territorial disputes between the two countries have been a sensitive issue for a few years now. And like it or not, the Abhisit government has to take responsibility if Panich's illegal entry into Cambodia causes a serious problem in our bilateral relations.

In the past few months, Thai-Cambodian ties have steadily improved. Hun Sen's U-turn policy toward the Abhisit government has become a subject of much debate: whether the adoption of a friendlier policy is a reflection of Cambodia's recognition of Abhisit's stronger position at home, or whether a deal has been done between the two countries' armies to maintain a status quo over the disputed border areas.

Whatever the reasons, the Thai Patriots' protests will not contribute positively to the improved relationship.

By Pavin Chachavalpongpun, former diplomat, fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The Nation, Bangkok

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