Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cambodian-Thai Demarcation talks to start in February

Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to begin demarcating their disputed border in early February after talks between the Thai foreign minister and his Cambodian counterpart.

Presenter: Zulfikar Abbany
Speaker: Carl Thayer, professor of politics, Australian Defence Force Academy

THAYER: Well, the border dispute when it erupted was with a different government that was facing attacks by the opposition in Thailand for having sold out the country, and Thailand couldn't negotiate. Everything had to be referred to parliament and a foreign minister had to resign, part of the prime minister's resignation at the time was related to this, and because parliament was in deadlock this joint border committee couldn't meet, and � vice-ministerial level and at one point Thailand didn't have a vice minister. So what's changed is we have a new government and it looks like a bit of stability in Bangkok, so the government has a foreign minister and parliament does seem set then to be the venue where the government can go back and take what it's doing for approval.

ABBANY: Thailand has mentioned that it wants to sort of get to grips with Burma as well, but do you think that this dispute with Cambodia would top Burma in terms of the foreign policy priorities for the new government in Thailand?

THAYER: Yes because last year both sides had put up about a thousand troops in armed confrontation, in some places 30 metres apart, there were incidents of deadly force, landmines, that Thai's claimed was newly planted blowing off the legs of two paramilitary rangers. So that the border was tense and it wasn't just over one spot, there's some 15 locations along a nearly 800 kilometre stretch of border that are in dispute. So while there have been serious problems in Myanmar in the past the problems with Cambodia are pressing because both sides mobilised troops, brought up artillery, armoured personnel carriers, and there's a need before they can demarcate to continue to reduce those numbers and agree on measures to prevent violent actions from reoccurring.

ABBANY: Now they've actually set some dates for these talks. The demarcation talks are to start on the 2nd of February, the talks to discuss the withdrawal of troops to start on the 6th of February. How quickly do you think those discussions will proceed to bring about an actual result?

THAYER: Well they're probably on the side of the troops they can move very quickly. Again in the past the local Thai commander was claiming that he couldn't take steps after political talks because they hadn't been approved by parliament, and he was quite worried about the authority to do so. So defusing the situation, engaging in confidence building by lowering troops, but already at the joint border commission it's been previously stated they will deal with the undisputed part of the border and demarcate that first and work towards the more complex parts. The Thais are going to go back to the turn of the 1904-1907 period to argue that the boundary should be determined by watershed and has not occurred. And so there's old principles, the sides have two different maps, so this is going to take some time for the substantive demarcating of the border. But getting the militaries to stand down that's an easier thing to do, demarcation is multi-years in prospect.

ABBANY: I imagine it would be quite a difficult and obviously sensitive issue for both these countries to be dealing with, because it seems that both countries, Thailand and Cambodia are wanting to present to the international community that they are moving on from their past. In Thailand's case the trouble of the last year or so, and in Cambodia's case well of course the Khmer Rouge tribunal is just starting. So are they going to use this perhaps as an issue to show the international community that they're moving on?

THAYER: Well last year when the situation erupted Hun Sen tried to take it to the UN, he tried to take it to ASEAN, and in both cases he was politely and diplomatically knocked back and said it's a bilateral issue for you two to settle it. The ASEAN partners around the region, Malaysia in particular has told them to use ASEAN's peaceful way. So they're under pressure to sort it out. The stability in Thailand that I mentioned, but also this border dispute erupted in the midst of a Cambodian election, and Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples Party used that, whipped up national sentiment, among other things they won a landslide victory because of it, so the heat's off domestically with Hun Sen. He now can get on being more diplomatic but in July of last year that couldn't have come at a better time for him during the elections where the opposition wanted to look at corruption and land grabbing and other issues, he was able to seize the nationalist moment.

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