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January 31, 2011

Domestic Politics Drive Thai-Cambodia Border Dispute

by Brian Padden

Some regional political analysts say domestic politics are driving the escalating tension between Thailand and Cambodia. There are conflicting opinions, though, about whether the current border dispute is likely to lead to military confrontation or is just political posturing.

The Preah Vihear Hindu temple, situated on the border of Thailand and Cambodia has been a source of friction for years. In 1962 the United Nations ruled the ancient complex is in Cambodia, but much of the surrounding land is Thai territory.

Increasing tensions

The dispute over the area flared up again in 2008, with occasional minor clashes between the two country’s armies since then.

But tensions between the two soared in December, when seven Thai activists affiliated with the People's Alliance for Democracy, known as the Yellow Shirts, went to another disputed border area and were arrested by Cambodian authorities.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the Thai activists wanted to provoke a crisis to rally political support for elections expected later this year. And he says by arresting the activists and threatening to charge them with espionage, Cambodia gave the activists what they wanted.

Domestic politics

"It is an overreaction of Cambodia, but to be fair with Cambodia, this is basically about Thailand domestic politics," said Pavin. "And these domestic forces in Thailand have been trying to pull Cambodia into the conflict."

A Cambodian court has freed five of the seven. Two others have been held for trial, and a verdict in their case could come as soon as Wednesday.

Over the past week, thousands of Yellow Shirt protesters have rallied in Bangkok demanding the Thai government take back the contested area by force. Cambodia has responded by raising troop levels on the border.

Carl Thayer is a Southeast Asia specialist with the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy.  He said despite the recent provocations, there is little cause to be concerned about a military confrontation.

"These are minor things and both sides have adopted an exaggerated sense that national territory is under threat, which in fact it is not," said Thayer. "The status quo is being maintained."

Political theater?

Thayer called the current situation political theater and said Thai military leaders have indicated the situation will be resolved peacefully.

Pavin said the Thai government may be forced, however, to act to maintain the support of the Yellow Shirts.

"It would be absurd for the government to basically declare war with Cambodia. In many ways, yes, it makes sense for the government to kind of pull back. But I do not know whether it is a little too late."

Both Pavin and Thayer said the heightened tension is being driven mostly by the political situation in Thailand, which is deeply divided.

Competing protests

The Yellow Shirts, who are considered more urban and middle class, occupied the main government office in Bangkok in 2008, and shut down the city’s airports. Their protests contributed to the ouster of two governments allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and led to the creation of the current government.

In 2010, tens of thousands of rival Red Shirts, representing many residents of rural areas, held their own protest in Bangkok to demand new elections. After two months of demonstrations, the Thai military intervened and 90 people died in the confrontation.

Pavin said the Yellow Shirts strategy to unite Thais against a common enemy in Cambodia could actually split them from allies in the ruling Democrat Party.

"If you even look at a deeper level, this is a fragmentation within the royalist group and I don't think the Bangkok elite, the traditional elite, they are very happy to see the fragmentation among like-minded."

These analysts say the tension between Thailand and Cambodia likely will continue until new elections are set in Thailand and the political parties focus again on domestic issues.