News / Asia

Thai-Cambodia Tensions Ease Ahead of Defense Ministers' Meeting

Thailand General Yutthasak Sasiprapha (File)
Thailand General Yutthasak Sasiprapha (File)
Ron Corben

Thailand and Cambodia hope a meeting of their defense ministers in September will help rebuild cross-border relations after two years of tensions and armed clashes. The improved diplomatic outlook follows the election in July of the Thai government under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thai Defense Minister General Yutthasak Sasiprapha and Cambodia’s deputy prime minister and defense minister, General Tea Banh, will co-chair a meeting of the general border committee in Phnom Penh on September 8.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University and former government spokesman, says although there are several outstanding disputes, there is also a sense that both countries want to return to normal diplomatic relations.

“I think both sides are trying to create a new impression that they are back at the negotiation table.  Of course hard issues are still the same, but they are trying to create an impression that things are back to normal and that’s not all bad because in the situation like this you need to create a better feeling,” he explained.

Media reports say General Yutthasak will also meet Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The talks mark a step toward rebuilding cross-border relations after a turbulent period during the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party leader.

Conflicts have focused the 11th century Preah Vihear Hindu temple, with both Thailand and Cambodia accusing the other of acts of aggression and shelling of smaller Hindu temple sites. Some 18 people were killed in the fighting and thousands of others fled their homes.

Both Cambodia and Thailand laid claims to the temple area. A 1962 World Court ruling awarded the temple to Cambodia but did not adjudicate on surrounding lands on the Thai side of the border.

In 2008 Cambodia had the temple declared a World Heritage site.  

Before then, Thailand had insisted both countries make a joint application to the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Thai nationalists’ accuse Cambodia of seeking to control the four square kilometers of area on the Thai side of the border, through its proposed management plan.

Carl Thayer, a political scientist at Australia’s University of New South Wales, says since the election of the Yingluck Shinawatra-led government, the diplomatic climate has improved.

“Overall prospects are positive at the moment - cautiously positive," Thayer said. "But [Yingluck] is facing tremendous internal problems and if anyone tries to make the border issue a domestic football then it’s going to complicate it.”

In the past, the border dispute with Cambodia has been a political wedge in Thailand where nationalist groups have accused allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of not forcefully representing Thailand’s interests in the dispute.

Thaksin has long had close ties with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the two countries had much friendlier relations during Thaksin’s tenure as Thailand’s prime minister. His former telecom company, Shin Corp, played a key role in Cambodia’s mobile phone and cable TV sectors in the 1990s.

After Thaksin was ousted in a coup in Thailand in 2006, Hun Sen appointed him as an economics advisor in 2009 and he visited Cambodia later that year.

During 2009, tensions again rose over the border issue, leading to sporadic clashes that continued for the next two years.  

This July, Cambodian asked the International Court of Justice to rule on the dispute. The court called for a demilitarized zone near the Preah Vihear temple and the posting of Indonesian army observers to enforce the agreement.

Cambodia is expected to press for Indonesian observers to act as a guarantee against a buildup of Thai troops.

Hang Chayya, director of the Phnom Penh-based Khmer Institute for Democracy, says, although Cambodia moves to control the temple site’s development, Phnom Penh is more cautious in its negotiations with Thailand.

“The government still wants to follow up in this with international or Indonesian observers and it wants to move and make an impact in terms of this development plan that it wants to carry out in regard to Preah Vihear. But it’s taking a very cautious sort of approach. It doesn’t want to resurface these issues again with the new government - the Yingluck government,” Hang said.

Thailand and Cambodia now say restoration of relations is a priority. Hun Sen says he is looking to improve the border situation with the cross-border dispute no longer figuring in talks of the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations.

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