Home > Local News > ANALYSIS – Cambodian PM reaps gains from Thai border battles

ANALYSIS – Cambodian PM reaps gains from Thai border battles

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen smiles as he attends a graduation
ceremony at the University of Phnom Penh February 10, 2011.
(REUTERS/Samrang Pring/Files)
BANGKOK (Reuters) – A bloody conflict between Thai and Cambodian forces
has added another twist to Thailand’s political crisis, and not without
benefit to Cambodian strongman, Hun Sen.
Regardless of which side fired first, the border battles have handed
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a
chance to score points at home by taking a stand against an eternal
rival he accuses of flexing its superior military muscle.
On the
surface, the latest flare-up is a fight over a stretch of border close
to Tan Moan and Tan Krabey, two 12th century Hindu temples both sides
lay claim to. So far, 18 people on both sides have been killed in 12
days of gunfights, grenades and artillery bombardments that have
displaced 65,000 people.
Analysts say political factions on both
sides of the frontier have something to gain from prolonging the fight
and scuttling a fragile ceasefire agreed between the two armies.
The
clashes have struck a chord with Cambodians and Hun Sen’s efforts to
internationalise the issue by calling for help from the United Nations,
the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the
International Court of Justice have helped stoke nationalist fervour.
“This
conflict is being played to the full extent by Hun Sen and with this
tough stance he will seek to gain as much status as he can from this,”
said Ian Bryson, a Southeast Asia analyst at consultants Control Risks.
“The
CPP government recognises that the sovereignty issue is a vehicle for
popularity that has almost become policy and gives it a mandate for its
rule.”
Conspiracy theorists suggest hawkish Thai generals in
cahoots with conservative nationalists could be fuelling the conflict to
delay an election expected by early July, or even to create a pretext
for a coup, to prevent the opposition Puea Thai Party from forming the
next government.
Thai officials reject that claim. Some privately
point the finger at Hun Sen, suggesting it’s in his interest to
discredit Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ahead of the election.
Hun
Sen, 60, has made no secret of his annoyance at Thailand’s
heel-dragging on demarcating disputed stretches of their shared 800-km
(500-mile) land border and 27,000 square km (10,400 sq miles) of
maritime territory believed to contain offshore oil reserves. A joint
border commission has carried out studies since 2000 but no agreement
has been reached.
Neither has the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla
sought to hide his loathing for Abhisit’s Democrat Party-led government,
which last week he called “thieves” and “terrorists”.
TEMPLE TURMOIL
Under
Abhisit, Thailand has sought to derail Cambodia’s listing of a far more
significant Hindu border temple, Preah Vihear, as a UNESCO World
Heritage site. A 1962 World Court ruling awarded the temple to Cambodia
but Thailand says the land around the ruins was never demarcated.
Clashes
in that area from Feb. 4-7 killed three Thai and eight Cambodian
troops. There was also some fighting near this temple in the latest
flare-up.
Hun Sen said last week he was willing to work with
Thailand’s “next government”, interpreted as a show of support for Puea
Thai, allied to his exiled friend and former Thai prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra.
But most analysts play down any Cambodian motivation
to meddle in Thailand’s internal crisis, despite Hun Sen’s thumbing his
nose at Abhisit by briefly hiring Thaksin as an economic adviser in
2009 and refusing to extradite him to serve a prison term for graft.
Thaksin also has much to lose by being seen as close to Hun Sen at this time, if nationalist sentiment rises in Thailand.
Thai
generals point out that the fighting coincides with the promotion of
Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, to a two-star general and deputy
commander of the country’s infantry in what many Cambodians see as a
tentative step towards a political dynasty in a country run by the same
man for 26 years.
With a doctorate in economics from Britain’s
Bristol University and having graduated from West Point military academy
in the United States, many analysts suggest 33-year-old Hun Manet is
being groomed as a successor and say the Thai conflict gives him a
chance to assert himself within Cambodia’s military.
Others say
the clashes are helping to draw attention away from rising discontent in
Cambodia over forced evictions to make way for development projects,
labour and trade union disputes and tough laws virtually outlawing
protests.
“The dispute, by fanning nationalist flames in Cambodia
as well, distracts from other pressing problems,” said Joshua
Kurlantzick of the U.S-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“With Cambodia’s domestic troubles unlikely to disappear, Preah Vihear
probably will not either,” he said in a blog post.
The issue is
expected to be a hot topic at an ASEAN summit in Jakarta this weekend.
Cambodia has rejected bilateral talks and is insisting on third-party
mediation, a move that has riled Thailand and suggests to some analysts
that Hun Sen’s government is in no rush to find a solution.
“Cambodia’s motivations are probably much simpler,” Eurasia Group analyst Roberto Herrera-Lim said in a research note.
“Hun
Sen scores political points domestically by standing up to what he
would like Cambodians to see as a bullying Thailand, as long as the
military losses are small and the outcome is inconclusive.”
(Editing by Alan Raybould and Miral Fahmy)
Source: Reuters
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Categories: Local News
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