It has been said that heaven ordained Cambodians, Thais and Vietnamese to live side by side until the end of time. They cannot move their respective countries elsewhere, but they have a choice: live harmoniously as neighbors or hurt one another as enemies.
Sadly, they have fought over land ownership throughout history. Nationalists from the three lands have displayed incredible eagerness to make “supreme sacrifices” to fight the transgressors — the “bad” guys on the other side of the border. It’s the “we, us, ours” versus “they, them, theirs” problem in human nature. Nationalist leaders have seized opportunities to incite the ready, able and willing in the name of the flag against their neighbors, and it has taken little provocation for the sentiment to be returned.
But beware, today’s heroism may be tomorrow’s foolishness, as memories fade, human thinking evolves, events are rewritten and brave heroes’ names lost in a pile.
Some readers in Cambodia enlightened me after my column, “Soldiers’ deaths could’ve been prevented.” Oh, no, war deaths could not have been prevented. Premier Hun Sen, who threatened a “life-and-death battle” and a “death zone,” was “right” to play hard ball with the Thais. Would the loved ones of the three Cambodian soldiers, and one Thai, who were killed on Oct. 15 agree?
If, from the cradle to the grave, man lives in the midst of politics, and if war remains an instrument political leaders will use for a political end, there are worries for the future of the three peoples condemned by destiny to be neighbors.
Who would find disagreement with the July 7 decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to inscribe the 9th century Preah Vihear ruins as a World Heritage site?
The Temple, built by Khmer kings, is viewed by both Thais and Cambodians to hold “outstanding universal value.” It was awarded in 1962 to Cambodia by a 9 to 3 verdict of the International Court of Justice, which also voted 7 to 5 for Thailand to return to Cambodia antiquities it had removed.
UNESCO’s decision brought military tensions that broke out in armed fighting. On the one hand, there is Thailand’s five-month-old street protest by the People’s Alliance for Democracy that seeks to bring down the Somchai Wongsawat government, elected by the rural and urban poor but opposed by Bangkok’s powerful elites. PAD accused Wongsawat of surrendering Thai sovereignty to Cambodia. To show it wasn’t so, Wongsawat beefed up Thai forces at the border.
On the other hand, the Thai troop buildup was opportune for Cambodian Premier Sen, who wanted votes in the July 27 national elections. His “death zone” talk showed an uncompromising strongman fighting to protect the Khmer heritage. Cambodians rushed to the colors and gave Sen their votes to rule as well.
The Khmer Empire once encompassed current Thailand to the west, the whole of Laos to the north, the former South Vietnam to the east, and a portion of Malaysia to the south. Today, the 181,035 square kilometers called Cambodia is all that’s left of the Empire.
So, up to 1,000 armed men dug in and eyeballed one another. The first armed clash of Oct. 3 resulted in injured soldiers. On Oct. 15, the fighting broke out in different locations. Yet, both Sen and Wongsawat are aware that a war between their forces is a no-win for them. Except Sen knows and executes his game plan better than Wongsawat.
Sen’s twist-and-turn maneuver saw Sen first wanting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore involved. Then he made noises about taking the matter to the United Nations Security Council. On Oct. 17, Sen changed tactics, dubbed the fighting “a minor armed clash,” and assured, “People should understand that there won’t be any large-scale war.”
On Oct. 24, Sen met with Wongsawat in Beijing. They agreed to avoid future conflict and maintain peace. At the border, their generals met for the 11th time and vowed “utmost restraint” to avoid future fighting. Continued bilateral talks are planned for Nov. 10.
Meanwhile, Sen’s military recruitment process has added some 3,000 “volunteers” to troops at the border. And, despite foreign donors’ concerns over Cambodia’s increasing military expenditure, the Sen administration seeks legislative approval for a 2009 budget of $2 billion, an increase of 28 percent from last year, with an increase of almost 70 percent in a military budget that totals $500 million.
Yet the areas of health care, education, rural development, agriculture, women’s affairs and social affairs are budgeted for an increase of about 5 percent.
What’s wrong with this picture of Hun Sen’s Cambodia?
A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years.