Uncertainty at home brings calm to the Thai–Cambodian border

Author: Nicole Jenne, European University Institute

Domestic uncertainties in Thailand and Cambodia have hindered progress along the heavily militarised border and the Preah Vihear temple dispute.

Between 2008 and 2011 the border around the ancient Khmer temple of Preah Vihear (Phra Viharn in Thai) was the site of repeated clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops. Open conflict was put on hold when Cambodia submitted the dispute to the International Court of Justice in 2011. More than two years later the Court confirmed Cambodia’s ownership over part of the disputed territory, leaving the adjacent area subject to bilateral negotiations.

Thousands of anti-government protesters march in front of anti-riot policemen on a main road during a massive rally in central Bangkok, Thailand, 11 November 2013. (Photo: AAP)

Months before the military took power in Bangkok in 2014, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen realised that he could no longer rely on a ‘red’, Thaksin-linked government holding power in Thailand. The Thai army made it clear that while it was tied up with the internal crisis, it would be in charge along the border as well. This was most obvious when the Thai government was unable to follow through with a plan to allow Indonesian observers, under the banner of ASEAN, to be stationed at the conflict site. The Abhisit-brokered agreement was rejected by a number of officers who had served on the Thai–Cambodian border and who enjoyed backing from the highest positions in the military. The situation did not change under Yingluck, who left the military free in dealing with Cambodia.

This prompted Hun Sen to end any visible support to Thaksin and the red shirt movement. This was a marked contrast to late 2009, when Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as his economic adviser and when he allowed tens of thousands of red shirt supporters to meet Thaksin when speaking in Siem Reap in April 2012.

Increasingly, Cambodia relied on military-to-military contacts to manage the situation on the ground, starting with local commanders, who were instructed to share not only information but also dried fish. When the Thai military took control in Bangkok, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for National Defence Tea Banh was the first ASEAN high-level politician to visit. Hun Sen did not waste any time, delivering his congratulations to Prayuth Chan-ocha the day after the Thai army chief was appointed prime minister. Cambodian officials even thanked the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) for managing the swift return of an estimated 200,000 Cambodian workers to Thailand, whose sudden outflow had ironically been triggered by the coup.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party lost 22 of 123 seats in the 2013 election. Economic development and job creation are now among the top priorities of the party to counter its loss of popularity, especially among the young generation. Good relations with Bangkok are therefore badly needed: Thailand is the second biggest importer of Cambodian goods after China. In addition, the Thai economy provides jobs for an estimated 400,000 Cambodians.

It is unlikely that Phnom Penh will be pushed to abandon its soft course. Despite — or perhaps precisely because of — the opposition’s overwhelming focus on the eastern border with Vietnam. The opposition parties have so far endorsed CPP’s policy in regard to Thailand. The border dispute effectively remained a non-issue when Cambodia protested a newly polished fence in front of Preah Vihear — in an area that is still to be demarcated — only days after the coup. When a shooting incident at a border post nearby made it into the news in early October 2014, both sides hushed up the issue. In the meantime, restoration works at the temple are undertaken with utmost care — to comply with the management plan endorsed by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and in order to avoid raising Thailand’s attention.

Cambodia would likely welcome talks on the land border and the maritime boundaries sooner rather than later. But the NCPO has signalled that talks will only resume once Thailand’s domestic situation is more certain. The border around Preah Vihear will doubtlessly remain a thorny issue. Any proposal by the Thai to develop the Preah Vihear World Heritage site jointly is likely to be ignored in Cambodia just as it happened when Prayuth brought it up at his visit in late October. But this does not foreclose other forms of cooperation in order to boost tourism at the temple. Nor does it mean that survey and demarcation work along the border needs to remain on standby. Talks on the maritime areas can also resume independently of the land border negotiations.

But with the question of royal succession looming over the Thai conflict, it is difficult to predict when Thailand will find a way out of its domestic crisis. Measures already adopted by the NCPO suggest that the military will strengthen its grip on power.

For the border dispute, this means a likely end to the high turnover of office holders and differing voices that have greatly increased uncertainty for Phnom Penh in the past. Now in the driver’s seat both at the border and in Bangkok, the Thai army will soon have to show how committed it is to put an end to the conflict. So while renewed fighting is unlikely, the Thai military will soon have to nail its colours to the mast.

Nicole Jenne is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.