Thai–Cambodian conflict rooted in history

Author: Kimly Ngoun, ANU

The conflict between Cambodia and Thailand has made headlines around the world over the past few years.

The latest dispute was precipitated by Thailand’s failed effort to block Cambodia from unilaterally nominating Preah Vihear Temple — an ancient Khmer temple located within a disputed border area — as a World Heritage site.

But this latest dispute is the result of much broader tensions between the two neighbours, rooted in an historical legacy of hostility and mistrust. It is also the result of divergent constructions of history by today’s Cambodian and Thai elites, each of which has tried to promote a sense of national identity based on the concepts of defined territorial sovereignty, a glorified past, and cultural and ethnic superiority. And given half the chance, Cambodian and Thai politicians retreat back into this narrative rallying people around the idea of territorial defence — or ancient temples — to provoke nationalist sentiment and marshal popular support.

There have been several phases to the conflict. From 2008 to mid-2011, relations between the two neighbours deteriorated greatly. Both countries recalled their respective ambassadors; Cambodian and Thai leaders engaged in harsh verbal attacks; people were arrested and accused of spying; the Thai government revoked the 2000 Memorandum of Understanding after Cambodia appointed former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic advisor to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen; the Thai Deputy Prime Minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, threatened to close the Cambodian-Thai border; and both countries reinforced their military presence in contested border areas. This led to a major outbreak of fighting, most seriously over several days in February and April 2011, causing many casualties, destroying houses, and sending tens of thousands of people living near the combat zones into evacuation centres.

The border dispute escalated as Thailand’s domestic politics became increasingly polarised between those who supported Thaksin (the red shirts) and those who opposed him (the yellow shirts, who are also supported by the Democrats, the military and the palace). After UNESCO endorsed Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage Site under the sole management of Cambodia in 2008, the yellow shirts, unhappy with the decision, launched protests in Bangkok and in the border province of Sisaket. Three protesters also gained access to Preah Vihear Temple and subsequently refused to leave, at which point Thailand stationed troops in the temple’s surrounding area — under the pretext of ensuring the protesters’ safety.

The Cambodian and Thai governments held meetings at different levels in an effort to reduce the tension, but these attempts failed. Prime Minister Hun Sen also sought assistance from ASEAN before proceeding to the UN Security Council in February 2011 when the situation degenerated further. In its decision, the Security Council allowed Indonesia, as chair of ASEAN, to mediate the dispute. Consequently, Indonesia was expected to send 30 unarmed observers to the disputed border area. While both governments agreed to the plan, the Thai military defiantly opposed any such deployment, claiming it could threaten Thai security. Hence, on 28 April 2011, as the fighting escalated once more, Cambodia’s government filed an application with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to have the international judicial body interpret its decision of 15 June 1962 about the ownership of Preah Vihear Temple and the land surrounding it. While the judges deliberated, Cambodia also asked the ICJ to order the withdrawal of Thai troops and an end to all military activity in the temple’s vicinity. The ICJ issued its decision on 18 July 2011, ordering both countries to withdraw troops immediately from the temple and the contested surrounding areas. The ICJ’s decision included a map which flagged a provisional demilitarised zone. The court asked both sides to cooperate with ASEAN, in particular by allowing Indonesian observers into the demilitarised zone.

Relations between the two countries have improved significantly since Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin’s sister — and her Pheu Thai Party won the July 2011 elections. Yingluck and her foreign and defence ministers made various trips to Phnom Penh in September, and leaders from both countries have promised to allow observers into the demilitarised zone and to honour the ICJ’s ruling. The Regional Border Committee meeting, chaired by commanders from Thailand’s Second Army Region and Cambodia’s Fourth Army Region, resumed on 23–24 August 2011 in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima Province. The General Border Committee meeting, chaired by defence ministers from both countries, has been delayed by the flood crisis in Thailand.

The general tone of relations between Cambodia and Thailand is improving. But the underlying roots of the conflict continue to threaten neighbourly ties, and have not yet been addressed. The historical legacy of hostility, different constructions of history, and the coupling of domestic politics with the defence of sovereignty, territory and ancient temples all need to be dealt with. Otherwise, the potential for future conflict remains.

Kimly Ngoun recently completed a Masters degree in Southeast Asian studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, and is currently a PhD student in political science at ANU

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Where is Thailand Headed?