By: Chak Sopheap
Guest Commentary, Published on UPI Asia
Niigata, Japan ? It has been more than four decades since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established. While ASEAN and its supporters claim that this regional institution has contributed significantly to peace and stability in Asia, there are still many challenges. The dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple that stands on their shared border provides a striking example of ASEAN?s failure to mediate regional conflict.
The group?s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which dates to 1976, promised to promote peace, solidarity and cooperation among its people. Article 2 in particular highlighted the principles of noninterference, settling disputes through peaceful means, and mutual respect for members? sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
The more recent ASEAN Charter ? which came into force in December last year after Thailand was the last nation to ratify it ? again lists maintaining regional security and respecting members? sovereignty among its principles and purposes. In reality, however, ASEAN is not even capable of resolving the current conflict on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Thailand and Cambodia have been in confrontation over a small stretch of disputed land since the United Nations approved Cambodia?s application to have its Preah Vihear Temple recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2008. The Thai government has repeatedly violated Cambodia?s sovereignty by deploying military forces to the border, twice sparking battles that killed a few soldiers on both sides, destroyed a Cambodian market and damaged part of the temple site.
Yet there has been no compensation or even acknowledgment of the Thai attacks on Cambodian territory. Instead of making stronger efforts to resolve the border issue during his visit to Cambodia last week, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has taken another provocative step by proposing that UNESCO reconsider its decision and list the temple as a World Heritage site under the joint management of Cambodia and Thailand.
This constitutes direct interference in Cambodian affairs and a violation of Cambodian sovereignty as guaranteed by international law. It also violates the principles of ASEAN, over which a Thai general secretary currently presides.
The border tension appears to be politically motivated to distract attention from the internal turmoil that has plagued Thai society ever since the military coup that toppled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office in 2006. In revenge, Thaksin has stirred up popular sentiment and appealed to his rural supporters to protest against the military regime.
Diverting attention away from this internal conflict to the border dispute with Cambodia appears to be a political strategy on the part of the Thai government to gain support from its citizens.
This provocative behavior should be condemned or at least discussed by ASEAN, but it has never been raised on the group?s agenda. It seems that ASEAN is simply irrelevant when it comes to member states? security.
If this continued violation of another member state?s sovereignty is acceptable to ASEAN, regional stability will surely deteriorate. Other states with conflicting territorial claims can use this populist strategy to incite nationalistic sentiment against their neighbors. They can divert their citizens? attention from internal conflict by creating international conflict.
Thailand, as a civilized state whose former foreign minister, Surin Pitsuwan, is the current secretary general of ASEAN, should respect the rule of law and the principles aimed at securing regional stability. Otherwise ASEAN cannot continue to be considered a crucial regional body.
(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)