Tempest over a Temple

BANGKOK – A few days after ASEAN held a successful annual meeting in August, two of its members restarted a conflict over an ancient temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

At its own conference in Brazil, the World Heritage Committee had tabled the matter regarding Preah Vihear temple that sits on top of the Dangrek mountains on the Thai-Cambodian border. When an investment development plan proposed by Cambodia over land that is also claimed by Thailand came up, the Thai delegates walked out of the meeting.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had awarded Preah Vihear to Cambodia. Forty-six years later, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared it a World Heritage site, following a Cambodian application for that status. But the move angered Thailand, which laid claim to a 4.6-metre strip of land west of the temple that was apparently being included in the Heritage site. Cambodia and Thailand have been in an on-and-off standoff in the area since, with occasional skirmishes between their respective military forces claiming the lives of eight soldiers so far.

The renewed Thai-Cambodian conflict has come as ASEAN embarks on efforts to realise its goal of having a “community” by 2015 and the regional grouping is hyping partnerships and cooperation among its member countries. Indeed, it’s had ASEAN’s critics shaking their heads and saying that the dispute is bound to once more underscore the association’s inability to settle disagreements among its members. Chheang Vannarith, the otherwise positive-thinking executive director of the Cambodia Non-partisan Research Institute in Phnom Penh, has even commented, “ASEAN’s current problem-solving mechanism is very disappointing.”

A problem with solving problems

In a recent progress report, ASEAN said that at the very least economic cooperation among its members is going quite smoothly. But it also indicated that the association’s member states were all aware of the need to develop more concrete negotiation frameworks and processes as part of conflict-resolution and management within the group.

There is actually an ASEAN Dispute Settlement System, but as a fact sheet on ASEAN’s official website says, this is strictly for “disputes of economic nature”. Apparently, though, some political analysts want a similar system for quarrels such as the one over Preah Vihear. In a 19 August 2010 story on the conflict, the Jakarta Post newspaper quoted international relations expert Bonggas Adi Chandra of Indonesia’s Padjadjaran University as saying, “In any regional organisation, conflicts among members are indeed inevitable. But as we’re heading towards the ASEAN community (in 2015), it is important (for us) to have a mechanism of regional conflict resolution, with an emphasis on solidarity.”

Another Padjadjaran University academic, Dudy Heryadi, also told the Post: “ASEAN could show its teeth in the event of conflicts between member states by actively offering solutions, instead of letting disputing parties negotiate bilaterally.”

Yet the fact that Thailand and Cambodia have yet to go fully head to head over Preah Vihear could be proof that the ASEAN way of handling conflicts is not as ineffective as its critics believe. In a 2008 paper that compared ASEAN and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), National University of Singapore Associate Professor Kripa Sridharan noted that if there is anything ASEAN has become adept in, it is conflict-prevention.

“One of the main criticisms against ASEAN states is that they are content with sidestepping rather than resolving or settling a conflict,” Sridharan wrote. “But they see merit in their minimalist approach because it has kept the region free of violent confrontations between member states. The fact that unresolved conflicts have not erupted into wars is attributed to ASEAN’s presence, the intra-regional harmony it has engendered and its unique way of combining formal and informal mechanisms to address regional issues.”

United somewhat

For sure, the region is ridden with disagreements among its members, with several of these stemming from territorial issues, such as those over Sabah (Malaysia and the Philippines) and the Spratlys (Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines). But Sridharan pointed out that such quarrels have not prevented ASEAN members from speaking as one – or, for that matter, holding their tongues in unison – when needed.

He also explained, “ASEAN’s preferred mode of operation has…been to rely on informal means and deal with differences at the bilateral level. The regional machinery has seldom come into play in tackling disputes. This is, no doubt, a flaw, but it could also be argued that even if there is no overt ASEAN role for settling disputes, the norms and values it has generated have helped in preventing disputes from turning violent.” (Or, in the case of the Thai-Cambodian temple tussle, keeping the body count minimal.)

Thus, while it would seem that the quarrel of two predominantly Buddhist nations over an 11th-century Hindu temple has been dragging on unnecessarily, it could well be that there is a method in all the diplomatic meandering that has taken place in the last two years.

The conflict’s latest episode, for instance, had Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen calling for ASEAN and the United Nations to act as mediators soon after the Thais walked out in Brazil. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government, as the current chair of ASEAN, immediately issued a statement saying an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting would be held in order to find “diplomatic solutions” to the dispute.

ASEAN Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan also told both Thai and international news agencies that the dispute will be solved through negotiation and non-violent actions. In addition, he suggested that Thai and Cambodian leaders discuss the matter at the upcoming Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) in October.

It was bad enough that Cambodians had cast a suspicious eye on Surin, who, they hinted, was biased since he happened to be Thai. They even said that he was probably advising Bangkok regarding Preah Vihear. The ASEAN official denied this, adding that he was not involved in the shaping of Thailand’s current foreign policy.

Then Bangkok decided to postpone an item in the Cabinet’s agenda to consider the minutes of Thai-Cambodia Joint Boundary Committee (JBC). This prompted a fresh round of criticism from Phnom Penh, which accused the Thai government of using delaying tactics and being insincere about wanting to resolve the Preah Vihear issue. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban immediately responded, saying that Cambodia’s leaders should not voice opinions that could be deemed as interfering into Thailand’s domestic affairs.

With a new war of words between the two countries, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Phuong Nga issued another statement calling for the two countries “to avoid situations that lead to armed conflicts or any actions that could adversely affect the unity of ASEAN”.

Noise from some neigbours

In truth, the tiff over the temple – which has been described by UNESCO as an exquisite example of Khmer architecture – has already provoked officials from some ASEAN member countries to speak up. In one recent interview, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo commented that “the land dispute between Thai and Cambodian border requires all diplomatic channels to solve it”. He suggested as well that both Thailand and Cambodia think about “ASEAN’s benefit”, too.

In large part, keeping the peace means keeping profits safe and continuously pouring into the region. This is especially true in mainland Southeast Asia, where even internal strife could have serious repercussions for the nation that is just next door. After all, this sheer proximity has also seen countries in the area drawing up development plans that include neighbouring nations. Hanoi, for instance, plans to promote investment along the Thai-Cambodian border that could help boost tourism in Vietnam. In early August, the Vietnamese government sent diplomatic representatives to Sa Kaeo in Thailand and Poi Pet in Cambodia to observe the investment situation there as part of the process to develop a regional economic and tourism policy. It is thus very much in Vietnam’s interest that Thailand and Cambodia keep on talking instead of going into battle.

The WHC has tried to help cool heads by postponing its tackling of the Preah Vihear issue to 2011. Theoretically, the ASEAN Troika could be revived to settle the matter; formed to handle a political crisis in Cambodia in the late 1990s, it has since morphed supposedly into an ad hoc body that would act in case of regional conflicts. But since the first Troika was dissolved in 1998, it has yet to make a reappearance to play its latest role.

In all probability, the Preah Vihear matter would be settled by a body outside of the region. This has occurred in the past; for one, it had been the ICJ that had determined Cambodia as the temple’s rightful owner almost 50 years ago.

Sridharan also cited other examples in his paper, among them the cases of Malaysia and Singapore, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, which had turned to the international tribunal to settle their maritime disputes. Wrote the academic: “An indirect indicator of ASEAN’s effectiveness in conflict management is the regional states’ willingness to take their disputes to international arbitration agencies for settlement. It could be argued that this practice exposes ASEAN’s ineffectiveness in dealing with regional conflicts; but looked at differently it reflects the high level of trust that induces these states to use an option that is perceived as being more objective.”

Yet there has been at least one instance in which ASEAN stepped into a dispute between two countries. This happened during the Third Indochina War when, as Sridharan described it, “ASEAN states relentlessly kept up the diplomatic pressure on Hanoi to reverse its 1978 invasion of Cambodia.”

“One of the significant consequences of that conflict was that it engendered extraordinary cohesion among ASEAN members and breathed a purpose into the organisation,” he wrote. “This impressive diplomatic effort and the major changes at the global level, like the winding down of the Cold War and the loss of Soviet support to Vietnam, led to the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1991.”

Padjadjaran University’s Dudy recalled it more vividly, recounting to the Jakarta Post: “The conflicts between Vietnam and Cambodia at the time were outrageous. But ASEAN mediated, effectively putting them in two separate rooms, then ASEAN met with them one at a time.”

He left out one significant detail, however: At the time, neither Vietnam nor Cambodia was yet a member of ASEAN. – With additional reporting by Aung Saw Min