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Thailand’s Rising Nationalism

Domestic political divisiveness is fanning the flames of the latest violence along the Cambodian border.

The
border skirmish between Thailand and Cambodia that started last Friday
has claimed at least six lives and wounded many more. The fighting
apparently started when Thai soldiers crossed into Cambodian territory
in search of a dead comrade and came under fire. But the roots of the
conflict lie in Thai domestic politics and the rise of nationalist
groups that are fanning the flames of anti-Cambodian sentiment.
The border dispute has been running for decades, tracing back to at
least 1962, when Thailand and Cambodia took the case to the
International Court of Justice. The court ruled in Cambodia’s favor,
though Thailand has unsuccessfully challenged the verdict. Despite that
history, the issue had been relatively quiet in recent years thanks in
large part to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s amicable policy toward
Thailand. That it’s bubbling up again now has more to do with
Thailand’s internal politics than any nation-to-nation dispute per se.
The current crisis was sparked by seven Thai activists, including
one parliamentarian from the ruling Democrat Party, who crossed
illegally into the contested Cambodian-controlled territory on Dec. 29.
Cambodian border guards arrested them, and they were locked up in a
Phnom Penh jail. Three weeks later, a Cambodian court released five of
them on suspended sentences and fined them one million riel ($250)
each. The remaining two, still in detention, are charged with
trespassing and espionage.
Thai nationalist groups such as the Thai Patriots Networks—a
splinter group of the royalist yellow-shirt movement, the People’s
Alliance for Democracy—and the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect have seized
upon the theme of “lost territories” to legitimize their nationalist
hostility toward Cambodia. Some of the Thais who were arrested in
December are members of the TPN; Veera Somkwamkid, one of the group’s
leaders, is one of the two who remain imprisoned across the border.
At a deeper level, however, the conflict reveals a power struggle
between the government and the PAD, the two main bastions of royalism
in domestic Thai politics. The PAD is apparently manipulating the
border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia to undermine the
Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
In the shadow of a polarized Thai politics, fresh violence along the border. Photo Associate Press
Relations between the two groups were not always so fractious. The
Democrat Party and the PAD fought side-by-side to unseat the government
of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and its subsequent proxies. They
were both also willing to use anti-Cambodian nationalism as a rallying
cry. This was clearest in the controversy over the Preah Vihear temple,
a historic structure that lies in the disputed border region. When the
administration of Thaksin successor Samak Sundaravej offered support to
Cambodia’s bid to list the temple as a Unesco World Heritage Site,
Samak’s PAD and Democrat opponents happily portrayed that stance as
acquiescing to Cambodia’s territorial claim.
Indeed, the Cambodia issue became an opportunity to further tar Mr.
Thaksin, who was already dogged by allegations that his and his
family’s business dealings had clouded his government’s judgment. Samak
was accused by his political opponents of “selling out Thai
sovereignty” to Cambodia to further the interests of the Thaksin
family. The PAD condemned then Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, who
previously served as Mr. Thaksin’s legal advisor, for betraying his
motherland and conspiring with Cambodia in “stealing” Thai territory.
This was supposedly a quid pro quo for favorite treatment of Mr.
Thaksin’s businesses in Cambodia. Under extreme pressure, Mr. Noppadon
was forced to resign.
But after it formed a government in late 2008 through a backroom
deal brokered by the military, the Democrat Party gradually distanced
itself from the PAD and its yellow-shirt protesters in an attempt to
rebuild the government’s image. PAD members were infuriated. Many
believed that they helped install the Democrat Party in power but never
got the credit they deserved from the Abhisit government.
So as Thailand nears a national election, possibly in the first half
of 2011, the PAD hopes to use the latest row with Cambodia to return to
the political limelight and strengthen its power base in Bangkok. It is
organizing mass demonstrations near Government House and calling for
Mr. Abhisit to adopt a tougher position on Cambodia’s government,
especially on the matter of the two remaining Thai prisoners. The PAD
has also worked closely with the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect to challenge
the Abhisit regime, vowing to continue protests until the prime
minister resigns.
Cambodia may be the only resonant issue they have. Many of the PAD’s
other ideas are controversial—such as a proposal in which 30% of a
future parliament would consist of elected leaders and the remaining
seats would be reserved for appointees. Under this new political model,
PAD leaders suggested, politicians would be required to exercise their
powers responsibly, and with clear limits—an obvious anti-Thaksin
measure. The proposal was severely criticized as a setback to Thai
democracy.
Even beyond Mr. Abhisit’s uncertain political future, though, the
present moment is a pivotal one for Thailand. The end of King Bhumibol
Adulyadej’s reign of over six decades is nigh as the king’s health is
failing. The falling-out between the two royalist groups worries
traditional elites who are keen to see consolidation, rather than
disintegration, among different actors in this crucial period. A
deepened fissure between the PAD and the Democrat Party would only make
the old establishment increasingly vulnerable, opening the door for
their opponents to gain an upper hand in Thailand’s ongoing political
stalemate.
At the same time, rumors are rife in Bangkok about an imminent coup.
It is possible that the military will once again intervene to break the
political deadlock if the crisis gets out of hand. Army chief Gen.
Prayuth Chanocha has suggested that a coup is still an attractive
option if the government proves unable to control the situation. If
such whisperings are true, the Thai people will have to endure a new
round of political conflict—and, more likely, a fresh round of violence.
The Wall Street Journal
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Categories: Local News
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