Friday, March 18, 2011

On the Thai-Cambodian Border, a Test for Both Asean and Indonesia

While Asean has been around only since 1967, some of the disputes that it now confronts have been around a great deal longer. The recent violent clashes on the Thai-Cambodian border are a case in point. The region’s Preah Vihear temple has changed hands time and again over hundreds of years, making it an ongoing sore spot for the two countries.

The debate should have been settled when the International Court of Justice granted Cambodia sovereignty over Preah Vihear in 1962, but now that the issue has festered open again, the developments raise a number of questions for both Asean and Indonesia.

Will the conflict threaten the validity of Asean through the blatant disregard for the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, or will Asean leadership instead assert itself and show it to be capable of effectively mediating its members? The international community is watching to see whether Asean is capable of solving its problems independently, and whether Indonesia, as the association’s current chair, can help steer it through the process.

Indonesia moved quickly to help stem the violence that broke out early last month, with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa visiting both countries inside of a week to extend a hand in mediation. Initially, Cambodia brought the matter to the UN Security Council for resolution despite calls from Thailand to continue negotiating bilaterally. The council passed the mantle of mediating negotiations to Asean, putting the issue back in Indonesia’s hands.

Marty took strong first steps to “own” the dispute and to legitimize Asean’s position in its resolution by swiftly responding to the crisis and presenting his office as a tool for mediation. But ensuring that Asean comes out of this stronger rather than weaker will be no simple matter. Asean has historically struggled with the ability to influence the actions of its members. Sovereignty and non-interference have been the order of the day for the four decades of its existence.

But in this case the non-adherence to Asean treaties provides a clear-cut justification for intervention. The TAC demands that member states commit themselves to the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the Asean Charter stipulates that member states must “endeavor” to “peacefully” resolve all disputes through “dialogue, consultation, and negotiation.”

The body’s reaction to the dispute will also set a new precedent. While regional intervention has occurred previously — for example when Thai troops were sent in to East Timor and Aceh — these were not under the auspices of Asean. The current case thus would be the first in which Asean countries agree to use Asean mechanisms to resolve a bilateral dispute between members.

Additionally, if negotiations are successful, this will be an important step toward increasing group cohesion and its own ability to regulate internally. This is essential if the association is to reach its 2015 goal for creating the full architecture of an enhanced Asean Community, especially those aspects pertaining to security. It may also create greater likelihood for the use of other Asean dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the High Council (as provided for in the TAC) or the use of conciliation, mediation and arbitration (as provided for in the charter).

But doubts in the efficacy of Asean were reflected in Cambodia’s decision to seek redress to the UN first, rather than Asean. Furthermore, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has voiced occasional doubts as to Asean’s capacity in this area. As for Thailand, from the beginning its officials have reiterated their preference for bilateral talks. They have since said that they now welcome Asean “support,” but they have not agreed to have Indonesia “referee” meetings (as requested by Cambodia), but rather just to observe them — not exactly an affirmation of resounding confidence.

Indonesia faces numerous challenges in establishing its role. There is the initial challenge of deciding where the country’s observers will be stationed, as Thailand does not want them just on the disputed territory but rather split between the Cambodian and Thai sides.

And as with the original concept of peacekeepers they will also be unarmed, which means they can only report on breaches of the cease-fire. But peacekeeping of this kind has not always been able to prevent further conflict. In fact, new conflicts break out in over half of the cases where peacekeepers have been deployed. Two of the first missions of this kind, in the Palestinian Territories in 1948 and Kashmir in 1949, remain volatile and frequently explode into violence.

As a result, peacekeeping has changed radically in recent years and modern-day peacekeepers are often armed in order to enforce, rather than just observe, the peace. But without arms, peacekeepers on the Thai-Cambodian border will not be able to force either side to do anything. This is the key difference in the Asean context. Their presence is rather meant to be a deterrent, or as potential whistle blowers, such that the Asean leadership can make the subsequent dialogue more open and more likely to succeed.

It should be noted though that the early steps taken by Marty have been crucial to legitimizing Asean and Indonesia’s role at the center of negotiations. Indonesia has long been heralded as the natural leader of Asean, and its rhetoric and actions since ascending to the chair have justified this. If Indonesia hopes to be seen as an important player in regional politics, and hopes to encourage a more internationally engaged role for Asean, the Cambodia-Thailand dispute will be a litmus test of its ability to guide the organization toward a stronger union.

The focus should thus now shift to what Indonesia should do to make this happen. The short-term concern for Indonesia must be the solving of the dispute between Cambodia and Thailand in a sustainable way. To do this, Cambodia and Thailand will need to ensure both that observers are able to precisely and fairly track developments, and that negotiations come to successful fruition for both sides.

In the long run, Indonesia must also ensure that Asean is seen as an essential partner in this engagement, while using existing mechanisms to the full, and even creating new ones as needed, to ensure that other regional confrontations land on Asean’s doorstep first.

By Laura Jepson program officer for policy development at Strategic Asia, a Jakarta-based consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian nations.

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