Sunday, July 3, 2011

Cambodia's diplomatic shenanigans

'Thuggish' display at summit a threat to Asean solidarity, and year ahead

When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong attacked Thailand at the Jakarta summit as an aggressor, it was with a heavy dose of malicious intent. Their poor manners surprised Asean colleagues at all levels.

During the ministerial meeting on Friday, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had to cut the former Khmer Rouge leader off before the Thai-Cambodian conflict split any further. It represented the lowest point of Asean diplomacy, which has prided itself on discreet and effective dealings.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva responded to Hun Sen's allegation in a calm and assured manner. He categorically stated that Thailand had no intention whatsoever of engaging in any conflict with neighbours and countries in the region. In the case of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya's rebuttal, he was right in responding to Cambodian vitriol, stating that the conflict had been raised and briefed by the chair as part of the progress report. The matter should be dealt with bilaterally, as has always been the case. He emphasised that the more important issues of Asean community building should be the topic of the day. That objective reminded Asean ministers of the ultimate objective of Asean - which was set up 1967 - to put all Southeast Asian countries under one roof. Can Asean allow such a thuggish attitude to prevail and destroy the group's solidarity and spirit of cooperation? This is essentially the first time a foreign minister had such bad taste to go all out at a plenary session.

Thailand and Cambodia are currently working hard, despite a lack of quick success, on various confidence-building measures to end the border dispute. Somehow, it seems Cambodia enjoys the game of brinkmanship at the expense of Thailand under Prime Minister Abhisit, who is trying to set things in order at home. He is calling for a new election in July after the dissolution of the House of Representative next week. Indeed, Cambodia knows how to score and hurt Thailand.

Lest we forget, this was the same bullying tactic that Cambodia used in 2008 at Singapore when Thailand was struggling with its own domestic problems. Phnom Penh tried to internationalise the conflict over the Hindu temple at Preah Vihear, and brought the issue to the UN Security Council as well as Asean. At the time, Cambodia's appeal was sent right back by the UNSC. It was during the second flare-up of border conflict in February this year that the matter was pushed forward to the Security Council again. Rightly, the issue was given to Asean to deal with as an intra-regional conflict. As the chair, Indonesia has done a great deal in bridging perception and procedural gaps between the two protagonists.

It remains to be seen how this will play out in the future as Cambodia has also referred the matter to the World Court for reinterpretation of the decision made in 1962 which stated that the temple belonged to Cambodia. It did not rule on the exact boundary between both countries, however. In response, Thailand also established its own legal experts to fight the case, which is expected to cause further tension between the two neighbours. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, the future Asean chair, Cambodia, will next year be at jeopardy if it seeks to drag Asean further and deeper into a quagmire of bilateral politics.

By The Nation

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