The election of Yingluck Shinawatra has raised hopes that Thailand can improve its prickly ties with Cambodia. But will the Thai Army get in the way?
Yingluck Shinawatra spent much of the month following her landmark victory in Thailand's national elections in July traveling the country, meeting with adoring supporters and enjoying a well-earned victory lap. But with all the problems that await her now that she has taken over as prime minister – opposition to her populist economic policies, a simmering insurgency in southern Thailand, and above all, the immense task of national reconciliation following the political violence in Bangkok last year – it’s a lap few could blame her for wanting to extend.
Amid all these challenges, though, there’s hope that the charismatic 44-year-old may be well-positioned to address one of the region's thorniest disputes: the border standoff between Thailand and Cambodia.
Military clashes between the two sides have left at least 28 dead so far this year, and have displaced thousands of civilians temporarily. The dispute centres primarily around Preah Vihear temple, an 11th-century complex along the border that was enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage site for Cambodia in 2008.
In a 1962 decision, the United Nations' International Court of Justice awarded sovereignty over Preah Vihear to Cambodia, though it didn’t address a stretch of adjacent territory that both sides now claim. Cambodia therefore requested earlier this year that the ICJ expand on its 1962 ruling in order to also address the disputed area near the temple. While a final decision on this request could take years, the ICJ made an interim order last month calling for both sides to withdraw their troops from the area.
This has so far been held up by disagreements between the respective governments over the details of the pull-out. With the term of erstwhile Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva having drawn to a close, however, Cambodian officials are holding out high hopes for the new government.
‘It’s true, we can’t hide the fact that we are happy with the victory of the Puea Thai Party,’ Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters following the Thai elections. ‘We hope that the new government in Thailand that is organised by Puea Thai will resolve issues with Cambodia more positively and more peacefully.’
Hun Sen, Cambodia’s outspoken prime minister, has made no secret of his disdain for Abhisit, calling the Oxford graduate the most difficult Thai premier with whom he has ever worked. Hun Sen has instead cultivated his relationship with Puea Thai and Yingluck's older brother Thaksin, who currently lives abroad to avoid a graft conviction after being ousted in a 2006 coup but who is widely believed to be pulling the strings for the party. In 2009, Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as an economics adviser to the Cambodian government, calling him an ‘eternal friend.’
Yingluck, for her part, has reportedly said that the restoration of ties with neighbouring countries will be a priority for the new government, an apparent reference to Cambodia.
This will not be without its challenges, however. Many analysts see the Thai army as being behind the clashes earlier this year, and senior military officials will assuredly work to preserve their autonomy despite the change in government.
The border dispute also arouses passions from other quarters in Thai society, particularly members of the conservative establishment and the Yellow Shirt movement. Then-Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama was forced from his position in 2008 for supporting Cambodia's UNESCO bid without parliamentary approval, and he and ex-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej later faced charges over the issue from Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission.
Although Yingluck's administration will be wary of inviting a similar reaction, they must nonetheless move on the issue, says Puangthong Pawakapan, an expert on Thai-Cambodian relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
‘I think Puea Thai realize that they have to try to solve this Preah Vihear temple issue,’ Puangthong says. ‘The new minister of foreign affairs needs to have the guts to fight against the misinformation created by the nationalists and be firm on the previous positions taken by Samak Sundaravej – that supporting Cambodia’s World Heritage inscription will not affect Thai territory at all.’
The appointment of new Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul, a relation of Thaksin by marriage, may herald a return to the business-focused diplomacy that characterized Thaksin’s tenure as prime minister. This could be a welcome approach in the Thai-Cambodian dispute, as past border tensions have held up a resolution to the countries’ so-called ‘overlapping claims area’ in the Gulf of Thailand, thought to be rich with untapped oil and gas resources.
While resistance at home may be fierce, the opportunity is there for Yingluck to move closer to resolving the conflict with Cambodia, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
‘Yingluck will have to try very hard to separate domestic politics from foreign affairs,’ Pavin says. ‘It will be difficult, but she has to do it.’
James O’Toole is a journalist based in Cambodia.
Photo Credit: US Air Force