Behind the fighting on the Thai-Cambodian border


Two South-east Asian neighbours, Thailand and Cambodia, with similar cultures and religion, have come to blows, apparently over a temple on their border. Since July 2008, serious fighting has broken out five times.

The first conflict occurred on July 15, 2008, just one week after the World Heritage Committee, meeting in Quebec, listed the Cambodian Temple of Preah Vihear as World Heritage. After another serious outbreak on October 15, 2008, Thailand and Cambodia agreed to a cease-fire. But on April 3-4, 2009, Thailand launched a major attack, which burned to the ground a market outside the temple and forced the evacuation of 317 Cambodian families.

Two much larger attacks were mounted this year. From February 4 to 7, more than 3000 shells and rockets were fired into Cambodian territory, displacing more than 13,000 people, including the inhabitants of a newly constructed village in which victims of the 2009 attack had been resettled in what they thought would be safety, 20km from the border. In the first use of cluster weapons since the Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force in 2008, Thai armed forces fired cluster munitions within the perimeter of the Temple of Preah Vihear and into civilian areas. Two Cambodian police were killed and eight seriously wounded when one of the bomblets exploded. This use of cluster munitions has been widely condemned.

Again in April, the area around the Temple of Preah Vihear was fired on at the same time as a more extensive attack was launched 150km further west along a 48km stretch of the border around the Temples of Ta Moan and Ta Krabey. This latest round of fighting was both more extensive and more intensive. More than 50,000 shells were fired up to 25 km inside Cambodia, causing some 40,000 people to flee their homes.

Avoiding witnesses

Predictably, each side accuses the other of initiating the fighting. However, after the February fighting, Cambodia appealed to both the UN Security Council and ASEAN (the 10-country regional grouping to which both Cambodia and Thailand belong) to send observers to the border. In late February, ASEAN endorsed a proposal for military observers from Indonesia to be posted on both sides of the border. This would make it difficult for either country to initiate fighting without being exposed as the aggressor. Cambodian and Thai diplomats both agreed to this proposal.

But the observers have still not arrived. Cambodia accepted the proposed terms of reference for Indonesian observers in less than 24 hours. But for more than three months the Thai government has found pretext after pretext to postpone their arrival. This means that there were no impartial observers to record who initiated the April battles, and are none now to observe the responsibility for any renewed fighting.

The Thai government keeps demanding changes to the terms of reference, and when these are accepted by the ASEAN chairperson and Cambodia, it demands further changes; these changes have mostly been in the direction of reducing the number of observers and moving them as far as possible from areas where fighting has occurred or might be expected to occur.

In addition to the fact that the Thai government doesn’t want any witnesses, there are other indications of who caused the problem. Cambodia would have no chance of prevailing over Thailand in a major military conflict. Its population is less than one-fourth of Thailand’s. Its GDP is less than 4% as large. Its armed forces number about one-eighth of Thailand’s, and the latter are equipped with far more sophisticated weaponry, including modern artillery and a modern air force (Cambodia’s air force consists of a few ageing Soviet helicopters).

Historical background

On the ground, the lengthy Thai-Cambodian border has markers on an average of only every two kilometres. But the dispute is not about the placing of border stones. The two countries have quite different maps.

In 1904-08, Thailand (then called Siam) and France (the colonial power in Cambodia) drew up agreed maps of the border. These placed all of the now disputed areas within Cambodia. However, during World War II, the Thai military government occupied most of north-western Cambodia without opposition from the Vichy French regime. After the war ended, Thai forces were withdrawn. However, when Cambodia achieved independence in 1953, the Thai government sent in troops to occupy the Temple of Preah Vihear and the area around it.

After attempting unsuccessfully to negotiate a Thai withdrawal, the Cambodian government took the situation to the International Court of Justice (or “World Court”). In 1962, the ICJ ruled that the border established in the French-Siamese treaty of 1908 had been accepted by both sides as legitimate, and it was not up to either side to try to change it 40 or 50 years later.

After the ruling, Thailand withdrew its troops from the temple, but it subsequently claimed that the ICJ ruling affected only the ownership of the temple, and had no bearing on the rest of the border. In 2007, it surprised Cambodia and map makers the world over by suddenly presenting its own map of the border. Where this map originated will probably never be known, but an earlier version was discovered bearing the warning “secret” in Thai. This map claims that the area right up to the perimeter of the temple is Thai, which would leave the temple itself stranded on the tip of a promontory atop a 600m cliff, with no access from the rest of Cambodia – obviously an impractical situation that would not have been envisaged by those who drew the 1908 maps nor by the ICJ.

Thus it is the Thai government that is trying to change the status quo and which therefore has a motive for initiating military action. In April Cambodia asked the ICJ to “interpret” its 1962 ruling to make clear that the validity of the 1908 map refers to its entirety, not just a small section of it.

Thai politics

It is a time-honoured political manoeuvre for rulers facing declining support to launch military adventures to distract attention from their domestic crises and drum up nationalistic and even xenophobic sentiments.

The present Thai government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was not chosen in a general election. It came to office at the end of 2008 after mass demonstrations by the nationalist Yellow Shirt movement (including occupying the Bangkok airport) and not very subtle hints from the military persuaded a sufficient number of parliamentarians to change sides. One of the Yellow Shirts’ charges against the preceding government was that it wasn’t sufficiently aggressive in pursuing Thai “national interests” on the border.

In recent months, the Yellow Shirts have been similarly critical of the Abhisit government, if not to the same degree. A general election is scheduled for July 3, which most observers consider to be very close between Abhisit and the opposition.

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