With news breaking this week that a Cambodian solider was killed on the border with Thailand, the site of a dispute that was recently adjudicated by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), it’s worth looking at how serious this development could turn out to be.
The Phnom Penh Post reported that Cambodian military officials claimed that Thai soldiers initiated the hostilities from their side of the border:
‘Pok Sophal, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander for Oddar Meanchey’s Trapaing Prasat district, about 100 kilometres from the Preah Vihear temple, claimed that Thai soldiers had opened fire on the soldiers.
‘”We had an appointment for the meeting (between Cambodian and Thai soldiers), and when we were walking, they opened fire at our soldiers,” he said. “They were already prepared to intentionally open fire at us in advance.”’
However, the article then goes on to note that the Cambodian government had a different account of what they believed to have transpired:
‘Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, yesterday said government officials were still investigating the issue, but that reports of an armed clash were “not accurate”.
‘“Officially, (there was) no confrontation between Cambodian soldiers and Thai soldiers. The casualty that happened was not involved with an armed clash at all,” he said. “The situation on the border is calm, and both sides, they build confidence.”’
If one is to believe the account given by Sophal, the significance of this incident sadly transcends the loss of life of one Cambodian soldier. Instead, the focus would have to be on the aggressive behaviour of the Thai military. This isn’t just because of the recent legal decision by the ICJ – which called for the removal of military personnel on both sides from the site of the Preah Vihear temple and the establishment of an independently monitored demilitarized zone – but because it could foreshadow a potential conflict between the Thai military establishment and the new Pheu Thai government.
Additionally, there’s a question over the role of the outgoing Abhisit administration and what function Thailand’s Democrat Party may have played if it’s determined that Thai soldiers instigated an attack.
As I reported earlier this month, relations between Thailand and Cambodia could be expected to improve considerably when Yingluck Shinawatra assumes the role of prime minister. The Thai military, the fiercely nationalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (Yellow Shirts), and other segments of the Bangkok elite were the biggest losers of Thailand’s elections this month, which swept the Pheu Thai party into power on a swell of support from the country’s poor, rural constituencies. The possibility for dissidence between the various actors within Thailand’s domestic political system is very real, highlighted by myriad coups orchestrated by the military in the past. However, the army did announce that it would accept the latest results in the aftermath of Pheu Thai's landslide victory.
It may, of course, turn out that this is much ado about nothing, and it’s possible that certain Cambodian military leaders are attempting to extract some sort of personal or professional benefit by fabricating a story. We need more details about exactly what happened, but it’s a story worth keeping an eye on in the coming days and weeks.
Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.