By PAVIN CHACHAVALPONGPUN
Fatal clashes erupted in the early hours of April 3 between Thai and Cambodian troops near Preah Vihear Temple on the two countries’ border, leaving two Thai and two Cambodian soldiers dead and several injured. It was not the first time gunfire was exchanged between the two Southeast Asian nations.
The first deadly clash took place in October 2008 at the height of the territorial dispute over the temple, resulting in a number of deaths and causalities.
The armed clashes between Thailand and Cambodia were seen as one of the most serious incidents in the region since the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, 43 years ago. It is a very dangerous flashpoint that could have a tremendous impact on regional security.
What are the underlying causes driving the Thai-Cambodian confrontation? In 1962, Thailand and Cambodia took their claims of ownership over the 900-year-old temple to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The court ruled the case in Cambodia’s favor. Thailand was instructed to remove its troops and military arsenals from the area. Almost 50 years on, although the bitter memory on the Thai side has lingered, there had been no attempt by Thailand to challenge the court’s ruling.
In 2007, Cambodia officially launched its campaign to have the temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Samak government, seen by its opponents as former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s proxy, endorsed the Cambodian request to UNESCO.
Noppadon Pattama, the foreign minister and a former personal lawyer for Thaksin, signed a joint communiqué with Cambodia, expressing the Thai commitment to support the UNESCO listing of the temple.
But from that moment on, the fire of Thai nationalism was fanned.
Anti-Thaksin forces, led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), grasped this opportunity to stir up a sense of nationalism against the Samak government in order to serve its own political legitimacy. The PAD linked the Thai support for Cambodia to the issue of lost territories, as a basis for its nationalistic protest against the Thaksin-backed government.
The concept of lost territories is powerful. Thailand, despite being the only country in the region to have escaped colonialism, has portrayed itself as a vulnerable state which had to surrender part of its territories to European powers in exchange for its overall independence.
In 1907, Siam, the former name of Thailand, signed a treaty with France. Accordingly, Siam gave up its possession of Cambodia’s Batambang, Sri Sophon and Siem Reap provinces to France. The contentious Preah Vihear Temple is located within this area.
With the Thai treaty with France and with the ruling of the ICJ, the PAD persistently claimed that Preah Vihear, known in Thai as Phra Viharn, still belongs to Thailand. And that Prime Minister Samak and Foreign Minister Noppadon betrayed the motherland in their support given to the Cambodians to claim their ownership of the temple. The PAD claimed that Thaksin was behind the government’s decision because he had business interests in Cambodia. The Thai support was described as “selling the national property” at the interest of private politicians.
In fact, this was not the first time the PAD accused Thaksin for selling national assets to foreigners. In 2006, Thaksin was condemned for selling his Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings without paying tax. The PAD view was that because Shin Corp dealt with telecommunications, it was deemed as a sensitive industry to national security, therefore Thaksin accumulated his own wealth at the expense of jeopardizing national interest.
The “selling the nation” taboo, or khai chart in Thai, has been used to whip up nationalistic fervor against Thaksin. It was employed to unseat the Samak government too. Nappadon was forced to resign from the foreign minister position. But the nationalistic feeling has never subsided.
The PAD also encouraged an armed conflict with Cambodia in order to bring back the so-called Thai territory. In his speech in July 2008, Sondhi Limthongkul, a leader of the PAD, even suggested that war was the only suitable solution to the temple crisis. In this process, the PAD painted the image of the Cambodians as national enemies. History was also distorted to conveniently serve Cambodia’s new role as the country’s adversary.
Now that the current foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, a member of the Democrat Party and a well-known sympathizer of the PAD, takes his turn to manage the temple issue, the fire of nationalism, lit by the PAD, has been rekindled.
Kasit’s opponents circulated his interview given to televised media in October 2008 (Kasit was then a shadow deputy prime minister) expressing his negative view of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Kasit, during the interview, referred to Hun Sen as a tramp and a vagrant. He thought Hun Sen was dotty, deranged and mentally imbalanced. Kasit also said that Hun Sen did not want good relations with Thailand because he was a slave of Thaksin. His remarks infuriated Hun Sen. In the same month, the first armed clash took place along the Thai-Cambodian border.
Recently during a no-confidence motion in the Thai parliament, Kasit was grilled by the opposition for not practicing good diplomacy vis-à-vis Cambodia and as a result bringing about escalating tension along the border. In his response, he once again referred to Hun Sen as a gangster. This sent another wrong message to Cambodia.
The Khmers now believe that Thailand, under the Abhisit government, continues to treat Cambodia as its enemy.
The conflict over the Preah Vihear temple, indeed, has very little to do with the real territorial issue, and more to do with an absurd nationalistic craze enflamed by Thai political factions.
The deaths and casualties in the recent clashes were simply the victims of a powerful nationalism run amok. The unrest at the border should by now remind the Thai leaders and the opposition that nationalism is a dangerous poison. It can turn extremely lethal once they lose control of it.
Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.