x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Thailand threatens to seal border

Cambodia's job offer to the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ignites a dispute between the neighbours that threatens to get out of hand.

The former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, right, with the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, in 2003.
The former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, right, with the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, in 2003.

BANGKOK // Thailand's recent tit-for-tat action against Cambodia has heightened tensions between the two neighbours. Troops along the border are on high alert and Thailand is threatening to seal off the border altogether. Thai officials are preparing contingency plans to evacuate thousands of Thais who live in Cambodia if the dispute turns nasty. Other South-East Asian countries have expressed concern over the worsening diplomatic row, fearing it could seriously damage the image of the regional grouping Asean before the US president's visit to the region to attend two significant regional summits in Singapore this week.

Angered by the Cambodian government's appointment of the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, as an economic adviser last Wednesday, Thailand immediately withdrew its ambassador from Phnom Penh. "It was a matter of national pride," Anuraj Manibhandu, a former news editor at the Bangkok Post and a Cambodia expert said in an interview. "They had to show a strong resolve in the face of Cambodia's insulting and provocative action."

Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, is currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for corruption if he returns to Thailand. At the Asean summit last month, in the southern Thai tourist resort of Hua Hin, the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen told reporters that he planned to invite the deposed Thai leader to live in Cambodia and advise his government on economic matters. He compared him to Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained Myanmar opposition leader.

The current Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, responded angrily to this suggestion at a press conference at the time. "He is seriously misinformed," Mr Abhisit said in an interview. "I am sure he will revise his views when he understands the real situation." After the summit the Thai government thought the matter had been resolved, according to Thai diplomats. But Hun Sen obviously wanted to take another swipe at the Thai prime minister through provocative comments in the press, according to Tom Fawthrop, a British journalist and author of several books on Cambodia.

The dispute is threatening to get out of hand. Thailand has scrapped an oil and gas exploration deal with Cambodia to jointly develop a disputed area in the Gulf of Thailand. The deal was signed in 2001 during Thaksin's tenure. Talks over the disputed land around the ancient Preah Vihear temple on the border are also in danger of being suspended, according to Thai government officials. Since July 2008, troops on both sides of the border near there have been on alert, after several deadly skirmishes resulted in more than a dozen deaths. "The most worrying problem is that there are no guarantees that the situation will not disintegrate into armed conflict between the two nations," said a political historian and Cambodian specialist, Charnvit Kasetsiri.

"The Thai government reacted too strongly and too quickly, leaving little room now for diplomatic negotiation to resolve the conflict," a European diplomat who closely watches regional issues said on condition of anonymity. The best course of action would have been to officially call in the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand and make a formal protest, he suggested. Then the next step would have been to send an envoy to Phnom Penh to talk directly to Hun Sen. The Cambodian ambassador was withdrawn from Bangkok after Thailand recalled its top diplomat in Phnom Penh. Now, the Thai government has painted itself into a corner by taking what it sees as the moral high ground.

"I think the government and Thai people are exercising patience and restraint," the Thai prime minister told reporters in Bangkok by a videophone call from Tokyo, where he is attending a Mekong regional meeting of Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, hosted by the Japanese government. There were no plans for the two leaders to meet in Tokyo, Thai diplomats said. Nearly a million Thai tourists visit Cambodia every year and trade across the border is booming. "Any disruption to cross-border trade will severely affect local people living along either side of the border," Ms Anuraj said. "The real losers if the situation gets out of hand will be both the common people in Both Cambodia and Thailand."