Absurd demand prolongs border dispute
May 13, 2009
It goes without saying that both Thai and Cambodian policy-makers should take to heart the old saying - you reap what you sow. It was revealed yesterday that Cambodia has demanded Thailand pay more than US$2 million(Bt69million) in compensation for damages caused by the Thai Army during clashes along the common border.
In a diplomatic note to the Thai Foreign Ministry, Phnom Penh said the April 3 clashes destroyed 264 stands at a market in front of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple and that the destruction has created great hardship for 319 families who lost their livelihoods as a consequence.
In April, Cambodian and Thai troops deployed to this contested area exchanged artillery, mortar and automatic weapons fire. However, this latest wave of tension began last year when the then government of Samak Sundaravej endorsed Cambodia's bid to have Preah Vihear listed as a World Heritage site, providing the then anti-government yellow-shirt movement with ammunition to attack the government and the then foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama.
To make matters worse, Unesco, the UN cultural agency that oversees such heritage listings, ignored an injunction from a Thai court and went ahead and approved Cambodia's bid for the temple to receive the much-desired status. The Thai court had ruled that the then government did not have the approval of Parliament to accede to Cambodia's wishes.
Since then, the disputed border area has witnessed several gun battles. A number of soldiers from both sides have been killed or injured. Both sides have refused to back away from their positions, even after rounds of negotiation and golf games at the expense of the taxpayer.
Tension between Thailand and its neighbours is nothing new, and problems flare up every now and then. Sometimes these incidents come out of nowhere. Sometimes they are accompanied by a good dose of politics, designed for the self-serving gain of certain figures or political cliques. Sometimes they are the result of simple bad judgement by policy-makers.
It is obvious that the current spate of tension between Thailand and Cambodia is tainted by gutter politics - stemming from the Samak government's go-it-alone endorsement without the approval of the Parliament here. To compound the issue, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an ultimatum for the withdrawal of Thai troops from the border area. He did not spell out the consequences if this did not happen, but the war drum was heard loud and clear in Bangkok. Then the former yellow-shirt activist, Kasit Piromya, the current foreign minister of Thailand, stepped in and called Hun Sen a "thug".
In spite of the handshakes and shuttle visits by political bigwigs, the dust has yet to settle. The issue simmers on, as demonstrated by this latest absurd demand from Phnom Penh. It comes at a time when the two sides should be talking about demilitarising the area and coming up with ways to reconcile differences and move on.
Such demands make us feel that Cambodia is not sincere about reconciliation and sees tension as a zero-sum game. But in fact it is the self-serving gutter politics of both countries that are at fault.
It has been consistently pointed out that landmines along the overlapping border have been freshly laid. Knowing that Thai troops patrol these paths year after year, one has to wonder why Cambodian troops would take such action? Moreover, the fact that a growing number of Cambodian villagers are being moved out of the area and replaced by Cambodian troops suggests to the world that Phnom Penh is on the warpath. So much for reconciliation; so much for Asean and its half-baked slogan of "one family".
Perhaps policymakers from both countries should come up with their own money to pay for the damages suffered by people on both sides of the disputed border. Policymakers are notorious for being corrupt. Perhaps they should use some of their ill-gotten gains as compensation for the communities along the border.