Thursday, January 27, 2011

Let's deal with this calmly

The last time Thai and Cambodian forces fought their worst sporadic battle over the disputed area surrounding the ancient Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, or Khao Phra Viharn as it is called in Thailand, was in October 2008. Several clashes were reported and both sides suffered death and injury among their men. Although further skirmishes occurred in the years following, they were deemed minor and insignificant.

The hostilities are believed to stem from Cambodia's unilateral effort to have the ancient temple registered as a World Heritage Site by Unesco, which it succeeded in doing, and also from the Cambodian government's appointment of Thailand's deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as its special economic adviser. Only after Thaksin's resignation from the post last August did relations between the two countries gradually take a turn for the better.

Prime Minister Hun Sen told Cambodian and foreign press on Dec 6 that relations between Thailand and Cambodia had returned to normal. This was further reinforced by a visit to Phnom Penh on Dec 20-21 by Thai army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha. On the occasion of that visit, Hun Sen handed over to Gen Prayuth and the Thai ambassador to Phnom Penh, Prasas Prasasvinitchai, three Thais who had been granted a royal pardon after they were sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment for illegal entry.

The rapprochement appeared to go smoothly until shortly before the year ended, when seven Thais, including Democrat MP Panich Vikitsreth and Veera Somkwamkid, a leading member of the Thai Patriots Network, a splinter faction of the People's Alliance for Democracy, were arrested in Cambodia on charges of illegal entry and trespass in a military zone, while on an inspection trip to investigate alleged border encroachment by Cambodian civilians. Though the Thai government tried to play down the event, the Cambodian government seemed to blow it out of proportion by charging Mr Veera and his secretary with spying.

The release and return home last week of Mr Panich and his four colleagues was a welcome move from Cambodia and a hopeful sign that ties would improve. But they did not. Thai media revealed that a small stone tablet had been put up by Cambodians at Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara temple which is located in the disputed area. The tablet, inscribed in the Khmer language, proclaimed ownership of the disputed land and denounced Thais as "invaders".

The message was definitely provocative and unfriendly and the Cambodian government should have known better. If Cambodia values good neighbourly relations with Thailand, this is no way to show it.

Also, the massing of troops for "routine drilling" by both sides as a show of force only serves to intensify the conflict unnecessarily. This is a time for cool heads to prevail, not a flexing of muscles. And both sides know that the right channel to resolve their border dispute is through the Joint Boundary Commission.

Any decent Cambodian and Thai will know that, by geography and destiny, we are neighbours and must live side by side together. Wouldn't it be much better if we lived in peace and harmony as friends, leaving behind our bitter history?


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