The animosity between Phnom Penh and Bangkok just keeps getting deeper. Thai belligerence and its sovereign claims over long-recognized Cambodian territory have inspired antagonists on both sides of the border into unwanted and occasionally nasty posturing.
Lately, that posturing has moved from the battlefields to the courts. No sooner had the shooting subsided around the stone ruins and temples at Preah Vihear, than allegations of spying emerged.
Neither side is totally pure. The charges are being used by both to feed domestic nationalist sentiment, with the Cambodian government under fire for its handling of aspects of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, while the Thai leadership is bracing itself for an unwanted but promised July 3 general election.
At the centre of the dispute is Thai national Suchart Muhammad, 32, Cambodian Ung Kimtai, 43, and Nguyen Tengyang, 37, from Vietnam, who were recently arrested in Thailand’s Sisaket Province near the Cambodian border and accused of spying on Thai paramilitary bases.
Similar charges have been laid against Thai nationals in Cambodia. Last February, a court found Veera Somkwamkid, coordinator of the Thai Patriots Network, and his secretary, Ratree Pipattanapaiboon, guilty of espionage. Veera was sentenced to an eight-year jail term, while Ratree was jailed for six years.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has rebuffed suggestions from Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya that the two countries should entertain the idea of a prisoner swap. Hun Sen sees the notion as tantamount to admitting that the three seized in Thailand – including a Thai and Vietnamese national – were on his government’s espionage payroll, a charge dismissed as ridiculous by the Cambodian foreign ministry.
Importantly, any swap could be construed as a victory for Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is under fire from Phnom Penh for his handling of the Preah Vihear dispute, and is fending off a leadership challenge at home from the sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Forty-three-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra is standing for the Pheu Thai Party, and is holding up well in the polls despite accusations – which have much substance – of corruption against her brother, who has lived in self-imposed exile ever since the 2006 coup. Not forgotten in this equation is Thaksin’s tight friendship with Hun Sen and the possibility of redemption if his sister’s succeeds at the ballot box.
This was no doubt on the minds of those in the Thai foreign ministry when Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, secretary to the Thai foreign minister, said the issue of the three arrested in Thailand could be raised in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
It was a legal tactic. The ICJ recognized Cambodian sovereignty around Preah Vihear way back in 1962, and Cambodia has both stunned and upset Bangkok by seeking a clarification on the ruling from the ICJ, of which it is a full member.
Any member of the ICJ must accept its rulings. Thailand, in contrast, isn’t a member, isn’t bound by ICJ rulings, and can reject its findings even if it seeks arbitration on a dispute.
As such, threats of taking Cambodia to the court over spying allegations are at best hollow, while the politics around Preah Vihear – where fierce fighting has left 28 people dead this year – have a long way to run with no genuine resolution in sight.