A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Thailand defensive as Cambodia acts tough

By Bunn Nagara

New Thai Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag was appointed to his post on Saturday, took his oath of office on Sunday, and was in urgent talks in Cambodia by Monday.

Bangkok is scrambling to make up for lost time, after its former foreign minister Noppadon Patttama seemed as indifferent to Thai interests as Phnom Penh was consistently focused over the disputed 11th-century Preah Vihear Hindu temple site.

In 1962, the World Court (ICJ) ruled that the temple stood on Cambodian soil, and Cambodia unilaterally filed for World Heritage List status. In May this year, Thailand agreed to that only if Cambodia’s filing excluded the disputed area around the temple.

But Noppadon and his Cabinet colleagues had apparently forgotten that access to the temple was on Thai territory. Different historical maps and border demarcations further complicated the plot.

Thai opposition critics chastised Noppadon, arguing that filing for world heritage status should have been a joint effort by both countries. Meanwhile Cambodia raised the nationalist stakes, applying for Asean and the UN Security Council to intervene, which nicely helped the governing party win last Sunday’s election with an increased majority.

Phnom Penh’s high-profile activism contrasts sharply with Bangkok’s sedate approach. Both countries had signed a memorandum of understanding in 2000, after which Cambodia let its soldiers and citizens enter the disputed area.

Earlier this month Unesco declared the area a World Heritage Site, pouring more attention on it. Thailand moved troops into the area it considers in dispute but which Cambodia interprets as its own.

Three Thai protesters got into the fray, military forces on both sides accumulated at the border, tensions soared, Thailand’s Constitutional Court annulled an earlier joint communique and Noppadon had to quit. His successor moved in swiftly, and Tej is seen as Thailand’s best hope.

The new minister is a royal adviser as a Privy Council member, after retirement as an experienced and respected career diplomat with no personal political agenda to distract him. He also happens to be chairman of the Thai-Cambodian Friendship Association.

Yet his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong is no pushover, has been a foreign minister for decades and is known to be a tough negotiator. On a personal level, both Hor and Tej are known to have worked alongside each other as ambassadors to France in the mid-1990s.

Earlier talks between Thai Supreme Commander Gen Boonsang Niempradit and Cambodia’s deputy premier Gen Tea Banh had already proved fruitless. The latest talks that began the week in Siem Reap started as a volatile mix of hope and anxiety.

They began on Monday morning, followed by a lull in the afternoon, then continued late into the night for a 12-hour stretch. The three major agenda items were a military pullout from the site, relocation of citizens in the area, and the disputed 4.6sq km territory itself.

By yesterday, both negotiating teams had agreed to advise their governments to “adjust” their respective troop levels from about 2,500 massed in the area. This would be done after official approval from both governments.

But fresh from an election win, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Thailand would need to pull its troops out first. The Thai government, already in a weakened state, said this could take weeks since the Cabinet might first have to refer it to Parliament.

Further talks would focus on border demarcation and the job of clearing landmines in the disputed area. Both sides also agreed to establish a joint task force for the larger issues.

The decades-long dispute could have been more than a storm in the proverbial teacup, as the risk of spillage and escalation can be unpredictable. A reliable gauge of political temperament is business sentiment, and traders and investors have not been alarmed.

Politically, both countries know they stand to lose if the dispute drags on and extremists on both sides are allowed free rein. After initial nationalist spasms are allowed to work themselves out and subside, diplomacy would regain the initiative.

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