The latest clash between Thai and Cambodian troops over a disputed area surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear temple along the two countries’ border should be a wake-up call for ASEAN.
Years of negotiations have proved ineffective in resolving the crisis as Thailand’s insistence that the issue is a bilateral one has been sharply rejected by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen’s response has been to call for UN peacekeepers to be deployed to the area, a call that raises an interesting question—is it time for ASEAN to seriously consider a peacekeeping force?
Ad hoc ceasefire agreements reached after each clash have been too fragile and prone to being breached by both sides—every time a skirmish has broken out, each side has been quick to blame the other.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Political efforts to find a solution, meanwhile, have been complicated by the domestic politics of both countries. Hun Sen has been accused by his political opponents of exploiting the border dispute to maintain his tight grip over his country, while Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is expected to dissolve the Thai parliament in early May, is loathe to appear weak heading into an election. All this is complicated by the close relationship between Hun Sen and the de facto leader of the Thai opposition, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Indonesia, as chair of ASEAN, has played an outstanding role in trying to broker a resolution to the dispute, but it can only do so much. For example, it put proffered the suggestion of dispatching a team of Indonesian observers to monitor the disputed area to avoid further clashes. This proposal was reportedly actually agreed on by the political leaders of both sides in the dispute, but there have been suggestions that objections from the Thai military, which feels uneasy with the idea of having a third party present in the conflict zone, have meant the idea is still on hold.
The latest clash started late last month, and many observers believe it is the most serious so far. At the time of writing, the official death toll stood at 17, although this is expected to increase. A temporary, fragile ceasefire was reached between the two militaries last Thursday, but quickly broke down after only 10 hours, leaving a tense situation and the prospect of war looming over the border.
What can ASEAN do to prevent all-out conflict? It could start by pooling the resources of all member states—including Thailand and Cambodia—to establish and deploy a peacekeeping force at the first opportunity.
This wouldn’t be the first time such a force has been considered. Back in March 2004, Indonesia’s then-Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda moved to propose the establishment of a regional peacekeeping force. Indonesia’s current foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, voiced his support back then, saying: ‘ASEAN countries should know one another better than anyone else, and therefore we should have the option for ASEAN countries to take advantage of an ASEAN peacekeeping force to be deployed if they so wish.’ However, the idea was opposed by a number of other foreign ministers, who noted ASEAN’s stated principle of non-interference in countries’ domestic affairs.