The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

The Thai-Cambodia Border Dispute and Implications for ASEAN

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on February 14, 2011

As someone who is passionate about evolving practice in ASEAN and whether it might portend a greater role for the body in ensuring human security in the face of prominent intra-state challenges, the recent flare up of the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia is sobering. As well as violating the cardinal ASEAN principles of non-use of force and the peaceful resolution of disputes, the violence is believed to have left 3 Thais and 8 Cambodians dead and an estimated 30,000 displaced. Moreover, the recent eruption of tensions poses an important test case for ASEAN. For better or for worse, the trajectory that the conflict as well as resolution efforts take over the coming days and weeks will have potentially significant implications for the grouping. Amongst the most disconcerting are the possible effect the conflict may have on member states’ perceptions of ASEAN’s relevance and ultimately, the negative influence it might exert on the momentum towards a Southeast Asian political-security community.

The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia has its origins in a settlement between the Kingdom of Siam and the French colonial government in Cambodia a century ago that saw the Preah Vihear temple awarded to Cambodia. In 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reaffirmed Cambodia’s sovereignty over the temple, but failed to rule on adjoining territory. The listing of the temple as a UN World Heritage site in 2008, however, sparked a fresh series of disputes, with the February clashes the most recent and violent flare up. Although border disputes are not uncommon among ASEAN members, observers of the recent violence invariably implicate the role of domestic political manoeuvring on both sides.

In the wake of the clashes, and in spite of Thailand’s preference for solving the problem bilaterally, Cambodia has called on the UN Security Council to engage and for UN peacekeepers to establish a buffer zone along the border. The Thai and Cambodian Foreign Ministers, and Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, representing ASEAN, are subsequently expected to attend a UNSC briefing on Monday. It is expected that the UNSC meeting will pave the way for a much-needed regional (binding) mandate to resolve the dispute. Kavi Chongkittavorn has suggested that Natalegawa’s urgent convening of a meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers on February 22nd is seen to be in anticipation of this, and will allow ASEAN to decide on a course of action for dousing potential further conflict – and salvaging its reputation.

While Cambodia’s internationalisation of the issue may have undermined ASEAN’s centrality in regional peace and security, the other side of the coin is that Cambodia’s course of action reflected a lack of faith in ASEAN’s capacity. The ASEAN Charter already provides for good offices, conciliation and mediation to solve disputes (see Articles 22 and 23), and it is crucial that ASEAN utilise this mandate – either through continued efforts by the ASEAN Chairman or a neutral party. Ultimately, the biggest hurdle to the effectiveness of current mechanisms is the requisite will on the part of member states. Countries’ perceptions of ASEAN’s legitimacy as an effective peace-broker are likely to play a key role in determining this. In this vein, in order to reaffirm its centrality in and capacity for regional conflict management, rather than merely asserting its relevance through the rhetoric of a political-security community, there must be measurable progress on concrete initiatives already provided for in the Charter and political-security community blueprint. This could mean, for instance, enhancing the region’s capacity for peacekeeping.


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