Thursday, November 6, 2008

Is This What Happened?

The Thai-Khmer clash over the disputed border area at Preah Vihear is some time back and enough has been written about it, a lot of speculation has been going on; but us normal folks are none the wiser. So here is one more piece.

The shoot-out occurred on Oct. 15 just while I was driving along road no. 7 with my Khmer partner to visit one of our holdings in Rattanakiri province. It should be noted that my partner has friends in high places and an extended family, most notably quite a few nephews whom he brought up as all of his 8 his brothers and sisters, except 2, were killed during the Pol Pot era. Two are colonels, one an assistant to the highest ranking general in Cambodia. As we were driving along we got bits and pieces of news of what was happening and what happened over the phone. His son who studies media communications added his two cents every time there was a piece on the news wires, to which he has access by virtue of the faculty. Additionally, a friend of my wife’s is a general, commanding a brigade of elite body guards, who had been called to the ‘frontline’ in Preah Vihear. He is a battle-hardened soldier, wounded several times, and an experienced jungle fighter in the civil war with the Khmer Rouge. Let me tell you, that phone was ringing constantly. My friend is the patriarch of the family so everybody feels duty-bound to report the latest news to him.

This is just to tell what my sources were and that I don’t just grab things out of the blue like so many of the other bloggers who mostly just repeat what they read in the news and then put their own spin on it.

Clearly, what I am about to write is basically hearsay, and unconfirmed, basically just another piece of speculation, and this time with the spin I put on it, but everyone can make their own judgment. To me it rings rather true and credible.

From what I heard, Cambodian forces began massing along the Thai border two days before the clash, right after Hun Sen had delivered his ultimatum to the Thai Foreign Minister. It was widely reported that Hun Sen requested that Thai forces withdraw to positions before mid-July, when those incursions started becoming ever more audacious, clearly fueled by the domestic turmoil in Thailand. The Thai FM reportedly replied they would have to ask their parliament for authorization to withdraw, upon which Hun Sen said that doesn’t really make sense since they didn’t ask the parliament whether they could enter Cambodian territory to begin with. At the end of that meeting Hun Sen then issued his ultimatum. Whether this was done impulsively or with plans already in place to teach the Thais a lesson will remain a mystery. But right after this, troops were put on alert and necessary brigades ordered to reinforce the troops on the border. At the same time artillery was brought from Eastern bases to Preah Vihear overnight to be in position when the ultimatum ran out.

The next day, Wednesday, Oct. 15, Thai troops withdrew from the disputed area and had vacated it by 12 o’clock noon. The Cambodians were really surprised to see this but their surprise became even bigger when at 2 o’clock they saw Thai tanks moving toward Cambodian territory again.

Cambodian forces, of course, are no match to Thai troops when it comes to armaments. Cambodia’s most widely used piece of light artillery is the B40 RPG. They have another somewhat antiquated but still highly effective piece – the Katyusha truck-mounted rocket launcher.

(Archive photograph)

No one knows for sure who fired the first shot but a little after two a clock this conflict had developed from a tense situation into an open military conflict with bullets flying both ways. At one point a Thai helicopter gunship fired its rockets and reportedly hit an armored personnel carrier killing all eight occupants. Unconfirmed reports say that incensed the Cambodian commanders so much they launched counter-strikes with their Katyusha hitting tanks and killing scores of Thai soldiers.

At this point the Thai commanders obviously realized that Cambodia was indeed serious when it said Thailand would face the possibility of war. They ordered a hold-fire, which resulted in a sort of cease-fire until today. The Cambodian side claimed they surrendered, which, of course, the Thai side denied vehemently. Tensions still run high, with some soldiers obviously believing that another outbreak of hostilities is unavoidable.

Officially, fatalities reported were 3 dead on the Cambodian side, and 1 dead on the Thai side. Unofficially, it is said there were actually 8 or 11 dead on the Cambodian side due to that helicopter strike, and as result of that Katyusha fire at least a number in the teens dead and countless wounded on the Thai side.

Pride and the need for a resumption of negotiations made both countries play down the real effects of that clash, at least so it seems.

Western observers questioned the necessity of an armed conflict to resolve this for both sides thorny issue and are still wondering why Hun Sen took this action, which many consider to be outright brinkmanship given the apparent Thai military superiority.

But maybe this is what went through Hun Sen’s mind. A conference with the Thai PM was scheduled for that Monday preceding the clash. The Thai PM canceled the meeting on short notice citing problems at home and sent his FM instead. This man, who had said in an interview that he doesn’t know a whole lot about foreign policy, was ill-suited to the task at hand. Say what you may about Hun Sen, but he knows when he is dealt a good hand, plus he may have seen the Thai actions as an affront.

He saw the Thai PM weakened in his position what with the Thai opposition occupying the Thai government for months now. He has no power over his military to remove the demonstrators from the front lawn of the Thai White House fearing bloodshed and civil war. The military is obviously listening to someone else, definitely not to the Thai PM who at the same time is the Defense Minister and as such the commander of the military forces. This is a truly unique situation. Seeing a wounded Thai PM, a Thai government in disarray, and the Thai military standing on the sidelines, Hun Sen perhaps concluded now is a good time to show them that they can’t go on bullying the Cambodians and gave the order to fire or return fire, whichever may have been the case. He clearly assumed that Thailand would not risk an all-out war with its neighbor over a few square kilometers in a desolate part of the country. Additionally, Thai forces have no real battle experience, whereas the Cambodian forces can be compared to the Viet Cong in the 60ies and 70ies. They may wear tattered uniforms and walk in slippers, but by all accounts they are tough. Hun Sen reportedly said that the Thais may the elephant here, but the Cambodian ants can cause tremendous pain to the elephant.

A war would considerably weaken Thailand internationally, put enormous, additional strains on their economy, and they are already hurting economically, losing billions of tourist dollars because of that whacky opposition movement, which proclaims outlandish concepts, such as the abolition of democracy. Thailand also faces a long-festering Muslim insurgency in the South. It can’t manage to confine that, and it would be hard-put to face those tough, wily Khmer soldiers on their Eastern border.

So Hun Sen played a high-stakes game and won. He again showed that when it comes to power play he is not one to be discounted or scoffed at. Let’s hope the Thais will finally see that the territory is Cambodian by all international legal standards and good neighborly relations are much more valuable than a few sparsely populated square kilometers.

For all those who are interested in the historical context of the Thai/Khmer dispute the University of Sydney has a very illustrative animated historical map here

And finally, I am wondering what Sam Rainsy would have done had he been PM of Cambodia.


Anonymous said...

I am franco khmer and I have been to cambodia several times the last three years.

I notice that almost everyone in cambodia loves to brag and exaggerate.
they love to twist the truth around to their advantage.
Unless you can see and touch for yourself, I suggest you refrain from
from adding spin to unconfirmed spin.
I don't know whether you are khmer or a foreigner, you seem to be well connected to the current regime.
Anyway reading your articles with interest and amusement. Stay away from politics and stick to the facts and I will continue reading.


Anonymous said...

Very nice article and very good analysis.
For Sam Raingsy, if he were PM at that time, he would launch the military attack much sooner than Hun Sen. But the war broke out, he probably stay in France for his personal safety.
Just my two cents.


Anonymous said...

There is a reason why I chose to write the article the way I did. I guess you can read it between the lines yourself.

I am not well-connected in the sense that I can exert influence or get favors from officials. I just know a few people from way back as I was one of the first foreigners to arrive in PP to do business here in 1988/9, shortly after the government relaxed its travel restrictions for Westerners. Many bought the first Mercedes cars in Phnom Penh from me. No overseas Khmer had ventured back yet.

Anonymous said...


Whats in the grapevine concerning Hok Lundy's accidental death.
What are the cambodians take on this.

KJE said...

As always when someone as controversial is this man dies there are lots of rumors, and the conspiracy crowd has a field day. Nothing worth mentioning though. Most people think, 'Good riddance.'

Anonymous said...

Me thinks the same though I would use a much stronger language.