04 May 2011
Guy Taylor
World Politics Review

The brief flare-up of fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops that killed 10 people last month was largely portrayed as a dispute over which country rightfully controls a Hindu-Buddhist temple that has stood along the border between the two for nearly a millennium.

Close observers of the region, however, explain that the recent troop buildups and violence are actually the product of a primarily manufactured conflict driven by nationalists scrambling to maintain a hold on power in both countries.

"Basically what you have here is a war of convenience between two governments that would both benefit from a skirmish that has almost no potential to escalate into a full-blown war," says Ernest Z. Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington.

Bower, who spoke with Trend Lines earlier this week, said the situation is being driven by domestic politics, predominantly in Thailand, where the government is "trying to appease the military because of recent political tensions."

An ongoing divide in Bangkok has "Yellow Shirt" nationalists supportive of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pitted against the country's "Red Shirt" pro-democracy activists.

The military, meanwhile, is the "final arbiter of who will run Thailand," said Bower, noting that Vejjajiva is expected over the coming days to announce a schedule for Thai elections in July.

In the interim, the prime minister is not only using the border tension to "give the military a nail to hit," he's attempting to exploit it as a means of unifying politically divided Thais.

"The Red Shirts, who significantly outnumber the Yellow Shirts, may win an election if there's nothing interesting going on, so a war against Cambodia certainly helps the current government, which is part of the Yellow Shirt establishment," he said.

Similar motivation -- albeit driven by entirely different circumstances -- is at play in Cambodia, where President Hun Sen is keen on using the military action to advance the prospects of his son, Hun Manet, a Cambodian army general overseeing the troop buildup.

"Hun Manet is a West Point-trained military officer, and Hun Sen is grooming him as a successor," said Bower, who added that "[seeing] Thais kill Cambodians on the border enrages Cambodians and really helps unite them as a people. It also battens down any opposition to Hun Sen."

While such reasoning might quell fears of a wider conflict between the two countries, it has done little to keep other regional players from feeling on edge. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose rotating presidency is currently held by Indonesia, has attempted to exert diplomatic pressure on both countries to stop sending more troops to the disputed border region. The pressure may be superfluous though, as Bower notes that neither country "is interested in a prolonged conflict at the border."

"I think the end game is the Thai election," he said. "Although there will be continued disagreements, I think the violence will end after July or August, and we'll see this issue disappear from the headlines by the end of the year."

Ernest Bower offers regular analysis on Asia at CSIS, including this recent piece examining the likelihood that Osama bin Laden's death may enable a U.S. shift toward a new paradigm for security and growth in Asia.


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