Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bangkok-Phnom Penh Conflict - Understanding Cambodia's goal and strategy on the border

Many years ago, MR Kasemsamosorn Kasemsri - one of the best diplomats Thailand ever produced - gave me an invaluable lesson in diplomacy and life. If we really want to get to the bottom of any matter, we must not simply ask "why?" but more importantly "why now?"

The latest border fight between Cambodia and Thailand provides a case in point. The artillery fire started by Cambodia (allegedly aimed, as stated by the latter, at a Thai construction site and machinery for road building in the border area) came out of nowhere and caught Thailand off guard. The road construction in and around the area by both countries has been a matter of bilateral dispute, as each has claimed that that area of construction is within its own territory.

Leaving the legitimacy of the territorial claims aside, it's worthy of note that:
1. Cambodia has purposely chosen the Preah Vihear Temple as the launch site for its own cannons and rockets. The basic rule of military engagement is that return fire be aimed at the launch site of the offensive artillery. If the temple is so precious to Cambodia, as it claims, and there is no other overriding hidden agenda, how can Cambodia knowingly put the temple at risk by originating its firing from there?

2. Cambodia claimed "heavy damage" was done to the structure of the temple by the rounds returned by Thai guns. The fact of the matter is that the temple was damaged extensively over the years by the Khmer Rouge's heavy shelling to root out General Lon Nol during the country's civil war. Any genuine conservationist would never place artillery at the site of the temple. By so doing, Cambodia is using the temple as a pawn and gambling it away as a hostage.

3. Recently it seems that the campaign by Thailand and its friends for Unesco to halt the completion process of the World Heritage registration - submitted by Cambodia to include the entire surrounding area - is gaining ground. Cambodia cannot want to see its plan slip through its fingers. Something must be done by the Cambodian leadership to invigorate and fuel the fire in the bellies of diehard conservationists everywhere, and for Unesco to wrap up the process quickly per the Cambodian design, to prevent further possible destruction to the temple.

If Unesco accepts the Cambodian registration request in its entirety, the territorial question will be nullified, as the Unesco ruling will make the Cambodian territorial claim a fait accompli, and a Thai appeal or any further action would be rendered futile. It would likely be put in the "unsportsmanlike-like" and "hostile" categories.

The aforementioned factors can explain the "why now?" question. Now on with the Cambodian strategy and tactics.

Simultaneous to its military manoeuvre, Cambodia launched an all-out appeal to the United Nations as well as Unesco. The trump cards it has are several. And the Cambodian strategy will go down as a best-case study in diplomacy for years to come. It's a multi-pronged, multi-level strategy, taking full advantage of Thailand's serious internal divisions and misplaced nationalism of a vociferous few.

On the international stage, Cambodia is perceived as a smaller country and at a lower developmental rating than Thailand. The perceived notion of a smaller and weaker sibling falling prey to a bullying bigger brother always attracts sympathy. Cambodia also knows that it has a staunch ally in France on the UN Security Council.

And Paris is not the only friend Cambodia can count on in this UN body.

Quite suspiciously the ceasefire mutually reached by both Thailand and Cambodia, and the fanfare over the latter's release of captured Thai soldiers, happened the day before Cambodia's petition to the UN to get involved and to send its peacekeeping forces. The two incidents provide a perfect backdrop for the Cambodian plea, and portray Cambodia as a peace-loving and peace-seeking nation at the expense of Thailand the aggressor.

Hun Sen himself is a veteran in diplomatic affairs. He was foreign minister of the PRK/SOC regime in 1979 before becoming prime minister in 1985. He and experienced compatriots like Hor Num Hong know how to spin the matter in the international arena better than anyone. Diplomacy is where experience and wisdom count.

Hun Sen's efforts are paying off. His strategy has made both the UN and Unesco start ticking. Both bodies are sending "fact-finding" missions to the area. Unfortunately for Thailand, the commiseration card is in the possession of Cambodia.

If Cambodia is successful in convincing the UN to deploy peacekeeping forces to the disputed area, as it strongly requests, the whole disputed territory will be out of reach of Thailand's appeal. But for Cambodia it is only the first of two punches it can pull to finish off the whole affair. Worse, nobody can tell how big the area might be under the jurisdiction of the UN peacekeeping forces.

Unesco is at a crossroads with regard to Preah Vihear Temple. Its fact-finding trip may make it realise that it should not be dragged into becoming a part of one country's agenda, and becoming the cause of irreparable conflict between two of its members. Or it can resolve to put a stop to any further structural damage to this World Heritage site by swiftly ruling that the surrounding area belongs to the temple, as Cambodia requests.

As for Thailand, we have long insisted that the territorial dispute is a bilateral matter and should be settled accordingly. Meanwhile, Asean has indicated its willingness to mediate, as both Thailand and Cambodia are Asean members, and the prolonged conflict between the two cannot be good for the whole grouping. The question remains whether Thailand is willing to consider multilateralism as an option.

These are the factors that Thailand has to take into account in formulating an effective strategy and response. So far Cambodia has been a good disciple of Sun Wu Tzu, the great 6th century B.C. Chinese military strategist. It is making its plans "dark and as impenetrable as night, and when it moves, falls like a thunderbolt".

But it is not too late for Thailand to appreciate the same military master who espoused time honoured wisdom. "Know your enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster." And to remember the warning of the same sage: "Strategy with tactics is the slowest route to victory; and tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." By Pornpimol Kanchanalak for The Nation, Bangkok

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