Regional Implications of Thai Instability

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The political turmoil in Thailand that culminated in a 2006 military coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has continued and is beginning to affect regional relations. The domestic maneuvering of rival politicians and political activists has further stoked nationalist sentiment under the post-coup administration of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Tensions have recently boiled over into a military standoff on the historically-contentious border with neighboring Cambodia.  

This round of political infighting revolves around the status of Preah Vihear, an 11th Century Hindu-Khmer temple on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1962 the International Court of Justice ruled the temple belonged to Cambodia, though ownership of land surrounding the temple was not resolved. In July 2008, UNESCO added Preah Vihear to its list of World Heritage sites, a decision that the Thai government initially approved.

The dispute over Preah Vihear has evolved from Thai protests and nationalist fervor to an incursion into disputed lands by Thai Army Rangers. Thai troops were ostensibly deployed to prevent the outbreak of violence involving Thai protestors who had entered the temple, but they remained after expelling the disappointed protestors. Cambodia sent its own troops to the disputed area and a stalemate has ensued.

The Samak Administration has been dogged by large and unrelenting protests in Bangkok and other cities since taking power. The force behind these demonstrations is the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a royalist group rooted in the urban middle-class that first organized in 2006 against the Thaksin Administration.

The PAD had targeted then PM Thaksin following allegations of misuse of power in the sale of a family-owned telecommunications company to Singapore’s national investment holding company as well as a middle class perception of policies that pandered unfairly to rural communities. The Samak Administration is widely viewed as a continuation of Thaksin’s brand of nominally populist politics.

Opposition forces, including the Democratic Party and the PAD have seized the opportunity to rally nationalist sentiment against the Samak Government. Foreign Minister Noppadon resigned after the Constitutional Court ruled that his approval for the UNESCO designation violated Thai sovereignty. Interestingly, planned PAD protests near Preah Vihear were repelled by local Thai villagers who accused them of contributing to tensions.

The growing nationalist sentiment largely stems from the inability of the opposition to produce a coherent substantive platform. Rather than provide competitive alternative visions for Thailand’s future, they seem to have chosen to mimic the ruling party’s rural-focused policies or, for fear of alienating their urban base, play to emotion laden nationalist sentiment. Unfortunately this has only further contributed to rural-urban divisions in the country.

Cambodia has so far responded to these provocative Thai actions with restraint. The Hun Sen government in Phnom Penh did not want to appear weak prior to national elections, which his Cambodian People’s Party readily won. Cultural nationalism in Cambodia is also on the rise, fuelled by its history at the center of larger power’s proxy wars and pre-colonial invasions by neighboring powers. The Khmer Empire, integral to the national identity of modern Cambodia, ruled from the 9th to the 15th centuries and is embodied in Preah Vihear, Angkor and many similar temples.

ASEAN was bypassed when Cambodia quickly appealed to the UN Security Council. There is little doubt that Thailand views itself as having the comparative advantage in bilateral negotiations with its much smaller neighbor. Attempts to involve third parties in the process have so far been blocked by Thailand. Secretary of State Rice commented on the issue July 24th while attending the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Singapore. She encouraged bilateral negotiations to continue and recommended the involvement of ASEAN prior to that of the UNSC. Cambodia subsequently postponed the Security Council request, though it was not withdrawn completely.

This tense situation provides an excellent opportunity for ASEAN, as the Thai-Cambodia border dispute is not confined to Preah Vihear. The confusion stems from Cambodia’s support for a French colonial-era demarcation, while the Thai position is based upon a post-World War II US survey. To further complicate the ongoing Preah Vihear negotiations, Thailand just recently requested UNESCO consider extending World Heritage status to another disputed temple, Ta Muen Thom.

ASEAN is often criticized for its inaction, especially its failure to address the human rights situation in Burma/Myanmar. Involvement of the regional body would help bring better equilibrium between Thailand and Cambodia in negotiating their common border. It would encourage Cambodia and temper the role of Thai domestic influences. ASEAN’s response to Cyclone Nargis was widely viewed as a shining moment for the regional grouping. This border dispute is an excellent opportunity to build on that momentum and further demonstrate its utility in solving regional problems and facilitating regional cooperation.

photo credit: Gerry Popplestone,


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