A Change of Guard

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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Surly neighbours should be ready to mend the fence

Tue, Aug 31, 2010
The Nation/Asia News Network

Thailand and Cambodia can restore ties knowing they are Asean members and can share economic benefits

One would not think that fence mending between Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen was possible considering the viciousness behind the Cambodian leader's attack on Abhisit last October.

Nevertheless, here we are at a possible reconciliation, and it should be welcomed. It's kiss and make up time for both sides. One may end up wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.

Perhaps bygones don't matter anymore, now that the two countries have decided to move on from microphone diplomacy and restore bilateral ties at the highest level. The respective ambassadors have been reinstated. Essentially, this means that diplomacy is back on track.

Another positive development has been the release of three Thai villagers who were detained by Cambodian soldiers when they strayed across the border. They were simply foraging for forest products to make ends meet. Nevertheless, one wonders if the three would be released if the political atmosphere were not on the upswing.

The move towards diplomatic normalisation comes with the announcement that fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra is no longer working as an "economic adviser" to Cambodia. It was generally realised on both sides of the border that the position was a way of antagonising Thailand rather than assisting Cambodia and its economy in any meaningful way.

The ousted Thai leader, wanted on charges of corruption, likes to represent himself as a champion of the poor, and his appointment in Cambodia was supposed to be a testimony to that status. But the nature of his entry into this cross-border quarrel, as well as his departure, suggests that Thaksin was just a political pawn. But still, he was willing to play a part in the hypocrisy as it showed Thailand that he maintains powerful friendships.

The advisory appointment of Thaksin was simply Hun Sen's way of getting back at Abhisit for obstructing Cambodia's bid to put the 12th century Preah Vihear temple on the Unesco's World Heritage list, and holding the Hindu-Khmer ruins hostage to border demarcation. While in opposition, Abhisit had charged that the then government of Samak Sundaravej had violated the Constitution by endorsing Cambodia's bid to propose the temple for World Heritage status. The border map submitted to Unesco by Cambodia could help strengthen Cambodia's claim to disputed, overlapping territories, he argued. Since then, bilateral ties have been frosty to say the least.

Fortunately, it didn't take long for Hun Sen to realise that Thaksin had outlived his usefulness and that the only way forward was to accept the fugitive's resignation and get bilateral ties back on track. Thaksin should now realise that his departure from the Thai-Cambodia equation benefits the two countries.

A number of issues had to be placed on the backburner as the two sides carried on a lengthy spitting contest that essentially served no purpose. But beside the border demarcation, the two countries still have overlapping territorial claims in the Gulf of Thailand that need to be addressed. Potential investment benefits from natural gas and oil deposits await the two countries in the Gulf, but neither side will be able to move on this until the land issue is resolved.

We hope that the economic incentives will be enough to motivate the two sides to get back to the negotiating table. But we shouldn't hold our breath. Although the political situation in Thailand is improving, there exists a group of ultra-nationalists who are prepared to cause more violence if they detect one move from the government they don't like.

Moving bilateral relations forward should now be somewhat easier, at least with Thaksin out of the immediate equation. However, both sides will have to display maturity and courage to ensure that pending issues can be resolved with any degree of normalcy. Importantly, Thailand and Cambodia are both active members of Asean, and this fact should be paramount in their attitudes.

The two leaders are scheduled to meet face to face in early October. Both have learned the hard way that politicising foreign relations for domestic consumption serves no one's interest. Now let's hope they have the courage to do the right thing.

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