The dispute about the Preah Vihear temple and the adjoining territories is into its 3rd year without an end in sight. If it were not so serious, one could easily dismiss this as politicking to enhance politicians’ stature. By all appearances, though, there are real fanatics at work; these would be the so-called yellow shirts in Thailand.
A possible, surely very unofficial scenario, of the recent round of fighting along the border must have gone down like this: the Thai PM called for the removal of the Cambodian flag from a temple in a disputed district. The Cambodian PM promptly denied this. So what could the Thai PM do? Nothing. This enraged his power base – the yellow shirts. They vowed to make things right and took matters into their own hands and marched to the border, most likely with the aim of removing that hated flag.
The Cambodian soldiers stationed at the border seeing the advance of the yellow shirts, probably accompanied by Thai soldiers, feared an invasion and opened fire. Needless to say, the Thai side retaliated in kind and in the end there were 2 or more dead (exact numbers are hard to come by even today), and many injured soldiers and civilians on both sides.
As happens in such cases, both sides claimed to have prevailed, but the result tends to point to the Cambodians as winners - the flag is still there, the territory is still Cambodian.
One can only suspect what happened the following days. It is well conceivable that the Cambodian soldiers were a little nervous and therefore trigger-happy. At the slightest movement on the other side they fired a few rounds in that direction, which promptly flared into another exchange of artillery rounds and machine gun fire.
Enough is enough, the Cambodian PM said and called on the UN Security Council to deal with this matter and send in UN observers or even peacekeepers. Finally, he also sent a letter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague ‘to clarify’ their 1962 judgment that the disputed territory belongs to Cambodian, as does Preah Vihear. How about that? Why didn’t that happen two years ago?
Diplomacy being diplomacy, one couldn’t really expect any concrete steps from the UNSC. I mean, the UN is a paper tiger anyway when it comes to resolving armed conflicts. Why should it be any different now? Surely enough, it called for ‘utmost restraint’. My goodness, that will defuse the situation, won’t it?
Having been sort of rebuffed, the PM then made a proposal to have ASEAN observers present. A smart move, as in the past practically all Cambodian moves were smarter than the incessant Thai calls for a bi-lateral solution. Even the Thai English-language newspapers acknowledged this fact. After more than 2 years, it must be clear to even the most naïve observer that a bi-lateral solution is not possible. So, now what?
Of course, the Thai PM is on wobbly legs already and needs to maneuver cautiously among the various factions of his supporters. The army is already itching to send him where he belongs, namely in some corporate boardroom. One thing is clear. The Thai PM cannot control his regional military commanders, let alone the military per se. Those regional commanders run their districts like fiefdoms, it is said; and it seems they all have their own agenda. It is a well-known fact that military people are not exactly known for their progressive thinking. Consequently, one cannot expect much from that side.
So will it be more of the same in the coming months and years, or will the Thai side finally come to their senses? And it is clearly them who are on the wrong side of history and international law here. We’ll see - check the news in the coming days for new developments – I wouldn’t hold my breath though.
What is so frustrating and disappointing, and one could really lose one’s faith in the intellectual abilities of politicians, if one hasn’t already, is that this is happening in the 21st century, where leaders throughout the world are supposed to be more open-minded and have a better understanding of the complexities of human interaction. Hasn’t anybody learned that armed conflict never solves anything permanently? But then, I never thought a war in Iraq or a continuing war in Afghanistan would ever happen. All the time people are dying for their leaders’ mistakes. Human lives aren’t worth much, are they? To me, this whole conflict is a travesty of diplomacy and a human tragedy, both in terms of the loss of individual lives and of the inability of leaders to resolve a needlessly deadly conflict.