Real reason behind Hun Sen's belligerence over temple
Thu, Oct 16, 2008

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen may have begun beating the war drums too early this week when he issued an ultimatum to Thailand that he would use force to resolve the border dispute at Preah Vihear, but he had reasons for doing so.

In fact, no one believed he would really order his troops to open fire, but an ultimatum like that needs to be thoroughly examined for its hidden meanings.

Some analysts read too much into it when they linked Hun Sen's move with deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The machiavellian scenario they suggested was that the Cambodian strongman wanted to help his associate Thaksin - and Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, the present Thai prime minister - to overcome Thailand's domestic political difficulties. The move, they said, was intended to divert attention from domestic political chaos by renewing external problems, and even hostilities, with Cambodia. But the analytical framework was too complicated and misinterpreted the clear picture of Thai-Cambodian relations.

Moreover, Somchai's government is too weak to generate external interest in its domestic problems. The present Cabinet would probably be unable to mobilise sufficient resources to wage war against Cambodia, and rather than finding support among Thais, Somchai may easily be accused of dragging the country into war. So the threat could worsen his situation rather than help it.

The rattling of Hun Sen's sabre was not intended to achieve a military goal, but rather was a back-up manoeuvre for diplomatic moves to achieve his development objectives.

The Cambodian government put a lot of effort into the listing of the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site. The Khmer sanctuary was expected to welcome a fresh surge of visitors after Unesco accepted it for listing earlier this year. Other World Heritage sites have enjoyed an immediate boost in tourism, but the listing of Preah Vihear has brought Cambodia no more than a bitter row with Thailand, on whose border the revered ruin sits. The site has been closed since the listing and has not earned Cambodia one single tourist dollar.

In 1962 the International Court of Justice ruled Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia, but easy access can only be made from Thailand. Phnom Penh needs space to build its own route to the temple, but unfortunately the area it needs is also claimed by Thailand.

Military occupation will not secure the area permanently. Only precise demarcation of the boundary between the two countries can divide the two sides, and that requires advanced technology and negotiations.

The two countries have not sat down for talks about their common border at Preah Vihear for some time, because of internal political difficulties.

For many reasons, Thailand remains unable to activate the Joint Commission on Demarcation of Land Boundaries (JBC). The present Constitution requires the Foreign Ministry to obtain a parliamentary mandate before commencing negotiations on boundaries.

The ministry has already submitted the framework of negotiation to the Parliament, but parliamentarians have hardly been in the mood to read it. This week's session of the House of Representatives was postponed following the recent bloodshed.

The JBC is normally co-chaired by a deputy foreign minister, but Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat has no deputy. He must assign one of his advisers to the job and told his Cambodian counterpart, Hor Namhong, on Monday that he would name a Thai co-chairman within a few weeks.

Hun Sen cannot wait that long, because his government is required to submit an administrative plan for Preah Vihear to the World Heritage Committee by next February. The plan cannot be completed as long as the boundary between Thailand and Cambodia remains a hotly contested issue.

Hun Sen's threatening tactics seem to have worked well. Thailand, although responding with strong words and assurances of retaliation in the case of attack, urged Phnom Penh to calm down and continue with talks. The Cambodian leader will be happy to see Thailand's new eagerness to talk and reactivate the JBC.


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