The United Nations is apparently ‘deeply concerned’ about the latest dustup between Thailand and Cambodia along their well-defined border and the 1000-year-old temple at Preah Vihear. Well, it should be.
Veterans of the current dispute and the anti-Thai riots that tore Phnom Penh apart back in 2003 know only too well how fast a scenario like this border clash can escalate. Both sides are being economical with the casualty figures. It might be five dead, it could be as high as 50.
Some outside help would be welcome, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has asked for intervention from the UN Security Council, where his country can probably count on support from old allies China and Russia, France—who helped draw the boundary—and the United States.
But to date, all he’s received is a statement from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that had about as much clout as a damp squib: ‘The secretary general appeals to both sides to put in place an effective arrangement for cessation of hostilities and to exercise maximum restraints.’
Diplomats in Bangkok and Phnom Penh were no doubt shaking in their boots.The Thais were so bold as to say: ‘If there is a complaint, we are ready to explain.’
The United Nations has a long and illustrious history of appeasement that ends up solving little. Its efforts in Somalia, the Balkans and its inability to disarm the warring factions in Cambodia in the 1990s were among its less illustrious adventures. And its continued recognition of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate leadership in then-Kampuchea for more than a decade after their great atrocities were committed still sticks in the gullet of many Cambodians.
The problem for UN appeasement is the border area is well defined by internationally accepted maps and easily checked with global positioning systems or GPS. The Thais don’t like this. But no matter how Thailand argues its side, the Cambodians have several international agreements that date back more than 100 years, a decision by the International Court of Justice, history and common sense on their side.
Bangkok is going to find it extremely difficult to find any country willing to back it, particularly given the substance attached to The Treaty of Washington, written in the aftermath World War II when Thailand sided with Japan and invaded and occupied large parts of Cambodia and Laos.
Under the treaty, Bangkok agreed to withdraw to the pre-war boundaries as part of a deal that basically absolved it of any war crimes committed while it was aligned with the Axis powers. It wasn’t until 1954 that Thailand disputed Cambodian sovereignty over Preah Vihear for the first time. That went to the international court, which six years later ruled against Thailand.
From the late 1970s to 1990s, the temple was a favourite haunt of the Khmer Rouge, another charming bunch of characters the government in Thailand had aligned itself with, following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979 that ended another well-documented madness.
Nobody in Thailand was remotely interested in challenging the already lost cause of the Hindu temple at Preah Vihear when the area was providing a handy a hideout for Pol Pot and his ultra-Maoists. However, problems at home and peace in Cambodia made an old chestnut out of Preah Vihear—a convenient excuse among extreme nationalists with a selective sense of history and a political agenda.
This was all the more so when UNESCO declared Preah Vihear a Cambodian World Heritage Site in July 2008.As a result, the latest bout of fighting has entered its fifth day and revealed one or two prejudices along the way, such as the few choice words from Thailand’s army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd.
In blaming the Cambodians for starting the attack, Sansern maintained the Thai response was proportionate, the defence minister and prime minister are well aware of the situation and that: ‘We are afraid of rumours that we are bullying an inferior neighbour because we have superior capabilities.’
The UN’s damp squib offered Cambodia little, and it might be all the world body can afford Thailand.