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.
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.
The problem with Wirajuda’s proposal at the time is that it was akin to planting a seed without soil and water—there was really no immediate benefit that ASEAN member states could see from engaging in such cooperation, meaning the environment just wasn’t right.
But with the ASEAN Charter, a legally-binding document signed in 2007, calling for ASEAN to become an economic, socio-cultural and political-security community, the time has come for the idea of an ASEAN peacekeeping force to be put back on the table.
The inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting, along with eight other dialogue partners (ADMM+) in October last year, has provided an excellent foundation for a bolder form of security cooperation among ASEAN member states. Indeed, the ASEAN Political and Security Blue Print, which supplements the Charter, already has language backing peacekeeping cooperation. It eyes: ‘(Establishment of) a network among existing ASEAN Member States’ peacekeeping centres to conduct joint planning, training, and sharing of experiences, with a view to establishing an ASEAN arrangement for the maintenance of peace and stability, in accordance with the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) 3-Year Work Programme.’
The African Union, which in many ways looks to ASEAN for inspiration as a successful regional bloc, has already formed the African Standby Force (ASF), to be deployed as a preventive measure aimed at averting conflict. Although still a work in process, it’s designed to consist of five brigades with 4,500 personnel, 350 vehicles and four helicopters per brigade.
The ASF has engaged in exercises with significant assistance from the EU and the United States. ASEAN member states currently have deployed 5,000 personnel worldwide as part of various UN Peacekeeping operations, yet these forces have no presence in their own backyard.
The benefits of an ASEAN peacekeeping force would go beyond resolution of the Thai-Cambodian border conflict. Any region must have its own processes and mechanisms for ensuring confidence and stability to maintain economic growth and sustainable development. ASEAN has made a remarkable transition into a formidable player in Asia and beyond, and a regional peacekeeping force would build on this progress and contribute to a greater sense that the region can take care of itself in times of crises—manmade or natural.
Of course, there’s bound to be opposition to any such development. Back in 2004, Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar was quick to dismiss the idea, arguing that: ‘ASEAN is not a security or defence organization…Perhaps sometime in the future there may be scope for such an organization.’
Yet it should be clear that that future has now arrived, and as chair of ASEAN this year, Indonesia should again explore the possibility.
If it is to have legitimacy in the current spat, any force would clearly need to consist of an equal number of Thai and Cambodian troops, stripped of their respective national military uniforms in favour of one bearing the ASEAN flag. To ensure neutrality, an Indonesian four-star general could serve as commander. If Indonesia was somehow to make such a peacekeeping force happen, it could well be the country’s single most important contribution to the future of ASEAN during its chairmanship.
It will, of course, inevitably have to keep pushing to bring the idea to fruition and overcome opposition from some of its neighbours. But the country is the only member of ASEAN with sufficient political capital and respect to put forward a proposal for such a paradigm shift in ASEAN’s security cooperation.
The ASEAN Summit to be held this weekend in Jakarta presents a timely opportunity for Jakarta to really step up.
Fuadi Pitsuwan is an associate at The Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm headed by former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and an adjunct research scholar at Georgetown University’s Asian Studies Department. The views expressed here are his own.