Jul 24th 2008 | BANGKOK AND PULAONG
From The Economist print edition
Modest progress on Myanmar is overshadowed by the threat of war between Thailand and Cambodia
FOUR months ago, when Thailand’s prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, visited his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen, the two countries seemed capable of dealing peacefully with a long-running dispute over an ancient temple on their borders. Thailand backed Cambodia’s bid to have the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple listed as a “world heritage” site and both sides agreed to keep talking over their overlapping claims to a nearby patch of land.
Since then, things have deteriorated to the point where each side has sent thousands of troops to the area. This week talks between the two countries agreed no more than to try to avoid settling things by force. Cambodia asked the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting over what it called a state of “imminent war”.
The armed confrontation between two members overshadowed this week’s meeting in Singapore of foreign ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). For all its shortcomings ASEAN had seemed at least to have banished the threat of war between its members. Now even this seems in doubt. ASEAN had hoped to trumpet its achievements over Myanmar, where relief supplies are now flowing fairly freely following cyclone Nargis in May. But the Thai-Cambodian dispute stole the show. Thailand rejected ASEAN’s offer to mediate. As ever, other member countries were reluctant to press too hard. They pleaded unsuccessfully with Cambodia not to show up ASEAN’s failure by pursuing its appeal to the Security Council.
For Cambodians the 900-year-old Hindu temple, perched on an escarpment, is a melancholy reminder of their forebears’ once-mighty Khmer empire, which for centuries ruled much of Indochina. Thailand is still smarting from a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice, awarding the temple to Cambodia (but not specifying where the border should be drawn). A loose coalition of Bangkok’s royalist elite, opposed to Mr Samak’s government, has whipped up public outrage over its backing for the world heritage listing, which a UN committee approved this month. Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government should have consulted parliament first, prompting the resignation of the foreign minister.
In recent years people on both sides have made a living trading with each other and serving tourists. Now, with the area swamped with soldiers, the headman of Pulaong, the village nearest the temple on the Thai side, says dozens of small businesses have closed. On July 17th local shopkeepers traded punches with anti-government protesters from Bangkok.
It is hard now for either country to back down. Mr Samak cannot afford to look weak, and nor can Mr Hun Sen, who is facing a general election on July 27th. He is sure to win it but his critics accuse him of weakness in the face of Thai aggression.
Bilateral talks will resume after the Cambodian election, when it is hoped a peaceful resolution will be easier to reach. But with so many troops and weapons in the disputed area, there is the constant risk of a mishap, leading to bloodshed. In 2003 a mob burned Thailand’s embassy in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, over misunderstood comments by a Thai actress that were seen as asserting Thai sovereignty over Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat temple complex.
If ASEAN were unable to prevent another such accident, the world’s doubts about the block’s relevance would only deepen. ASEAN had hoped to recover its reputation somewhat with the publication at the summit of a report showing progress in bringing relief to Myanmar’s cyclone victims. ASEAN’s initial response had been slow and feeble: it could have embarrassed its rogue member’s military dictators into allowing in more aid, more quickly, by making a generous and public offer of assistance that, coming from “friendly” neighbours rather than hostile Western powers, would have been harder to reject. Belatedly, ASEAN proposed a “tripartite” group—itself plus the UN and the Burmese government—to oversee relief efforts, thereby giving the regime cover to soften its opposition to foreign aid workers’ presence in the devastated Irrawaddy delta.
The tripartite group’s report to the summit contained fairly good news: although aid workers were only able to offer shelter to 30% of those left homeless by the storm, locals have got on with it themselves and rebuilt about 80% of the 800,000 destroyed or damaged homes. Enough medical aid has arrived to avert a much-feared outbreak of deadly diseases. A senior relief-agency official says ASEAN’s involvement has eased the flow of aid workers and supplies down to the delta. But he says much of the credit is due personally to George Yeo, the foreign minister of Singapore (ASEAN’s current chair), and Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN’s secretary-general, who are “pushing the envelope” of the block’s rule of non-interference.
Mr Yeo said Myanmar had hinted that Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s opposition leader, might soon be freed from house arrest. Embarrassingly, his Burmese counterpart swiftly denied this. In its communiqué ASEAN used its strongest language yet to demand that Myanmar release Miss Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and hold fair elections. But the Burmese generals know that the block is still far from taking any action to back its words. The summit sought to make progress on a new ASEAN human-rights body but the Burmese said it must not have powers to monitor or investigate abuses—only a toothless one would do.
Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, reminded ASEAN leaders that they had, in 41 years of summitry, honoured only 30% of the fairly modest agreements they had signed. Other, broader Asian forums are developing, he noted, posing a danger that ASEAN might be sidelined. But, as he also noted, the block’s biggest members are preoccupied with domestic matters—political crises in Thailand and Malaysia, approaching elections in Indonesia and the Philippines—that leave little time for thinking about regional unity.
This year saw the end of one of ASEAN’s traditional contributions to that unity—the annual cabaret at which its foreign ministers and their guests entertain each other and make fools of themselves. As host, the famously fun-loving Singaporean government dropped the event. Maybe there is not much to laugh about.