Original report from Phnom Penh
08 September 2008
Cambodian political analysts are worried that bilateral border talks with Thailand will not yield results, as Cambodia’s neighbor continues to face a political crisis, and that continued delays could lead to eventual fighting among troops on the border.
Critics of bilateral talks say Cambodia should instead renew its efforts for international intervention, including through the UN Security Council or Asean.
Independent analysts Chea Vannath, founder of the Center for Social Development, said in a recent interview that bilateral talks should never have taken place and are unlikely to bring results now.
“Under the present circumstances of political turmoil, I don’t think the Thai government can make a proper decision,” she said. “We have enough legal grounds from the Hague International Court, which ruled the area belongs to Cambodia. So we could go to the international community rather than sit in such bilateral talks with Thailand.”
Cambodian and Thai troops have been deployed on the border in several provinces, following an incursion by Thai soldiers into a pagoda claimed by Cambodian near Preah Vihear temple in July.
Opposition protesters are demanding the Thai prime minister, Samak Sundaravaj, step down, and last week the second foreign minister in two months resigned. At least one demonstrator has been killed in political violence in Bangkok, and 43 have been injured.
Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc, said that in such an environment, Cambodia should seek opinions from the opposition and civil society and begin to lobby diplomats for multi-lateral negotiations.
“The government should take different opinions from all Cambodian circles, from within and outside the government, as well as civil society,” he said. A lobby campaign with diplomats should “explain that Cambodia has already long acted in goodwill, but now bilateral talks have gone nowhere.”
Without a strong lobbying campaign with international diplomats, complaints will produce little results, he added. Nor will relying on Thailand’s beneficence to solve longstanding border disputes.
Prolonged deployment of soldiers along the border will mean increased tension, as soldiers begin to feel bored, or if an accidental explosion occurs, he said.
“We have waited long, so if it will take another year and another, what can we do?” he said. “We should think really hard.”
Many of the soldiers along the border are former Khmer Rouge fighters, with strong nationalist tendencies and “boiling hearts,” Chea Vannath said. Such conditions run a high risk of serious danger, she said.
Chaturont Chaiyakam, first secretary of the Thai Embassy, declined to comment.
However, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith expressed optimism with bilateral negotiation so far and said he didn’t expect the UN to take any action other than to tell both sides to settle the matter among each other.
“If we complain to the United Nations or the United Nations Security Council, what would the reply be?” he said. “They will say, ‘Both sides, please be tolerant and continue negotiations and solve the problem peacefully.’ That’s all.”
“We already know about it, so why should we do that and get them to admonish us?” he said. “We know the UN’s principles. In supporting Cambodia, they are afraid Thailand will feel upset. In supporting Thailand, they are afraid Cambodia will feel upset. Seeking the UN’s help is not as easy as they predict.”
Both sides have already withdrawn most troops from the pagoda at the center of the standoff, which lies just west of Preah Vihear temple, Khieu Kanharith said, adding that border issues are complicated and have gone unresolved for more than 100 years.
Negotiations over border demarcation move slowly, he said, but they must continue little by little, settling demarcation posts and avoiding armed conflict. He also acknowledged that Thailand’s government will not be able to do anything while it is in crisis.
Council of Minister spokesman Phay Siphan also said bilateral talks had been encouraging so far. The government recognized the democratically elected prime minister, he said, and was working to show good faith before seeking multi-lateral solutions.
“We are trying our best,” he said. “This work is enormous, an international issue. Even national issues, such as a civil case in a national court, sometimes take more than a year. We have worked on this just more than a month, but we have worked quickly.”
Not everyone is as optimistic.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said recently the talks had failed time and again, allowing for the border dispute to spread, from Preah Vihear into other provinces, including the Ta Moan temple complex in Oddar Meanchey province.
“The longer they have negotiated with us, the more rights they have claimed on territory,” he said. “Moreover, we see continuing negotiations make no sense, because it seems the [Thai] government will collapse before long. So we should seek as many experts as possible to bring the case to UN.”