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Asia

Indonesia's role in the Thai-Cambodia border dispute still unclear

Indonesia who currently chairs the ASEAN was prepared to send observers to the disputed Thailand Cambodia border. But now Thai military is saying it would just complicate matters.

The Preah Vihear temple is seen on the Cambodian-Thai- border

The Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodian-Thai border has caused friction between the neighbouring countries

Last month the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia looked very satisfied at the end of an informal meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) in Jakarta. All parties had just agreed to send Indonesian observers to the disputed border area between Thailand and Cambodia. The agreement was hailed as a historic step to end the longstanding conflict between the neighboring countries.

Foreign ministers of Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand

The foreign ministers have agreed on a mediation effort on an ASEAN meeting in Jakarta

But now, new uncertainties are looming. Thailand's military said this week that observers coming to the conflict area will complicate problems. The longstanding General Border Committee (GBC), chaired by the defense ministers of the conflicting parties, should meet beforehand in order to help the countries decide whether observers are wanted in the area.

However the military admits that the government has the final word in this matter.

General Border Committee not to be held in a third country

Thai military also refuse to hold meetings between Thailand and Cambodia’s two border committees in Indonesia in early April, which was also agreed in last month's ASEAN meeting.

The Thai Defense Ministry had sent a letter to its Cambodian counterpart, asking for a GBC meeting in one of the two countries as soon as possible so that the military leaders could discuss the border problem. Indonesia is allowed to come to the meeting as an observer.

So far, the Thai government has denied a split of views with the military. Government spokesman announced that there is no change in position and it is just a matter of clearing the conditions.

The military trying to hold on to its authority

For Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher for political and strategic affairs in the Singaporean ASEAN Studies Centre, the Thai military skeptical vis-a-vis mediation efforts because, in the light of the upcoming election, it wants to retain its authority and influence when foreign policies with neighboring countries are being drawn up.

Thailand's 2nd Region Army Commander Lt. Gen. Tawatchai Samutsakhon, left, and Cambodia's 4th Region Army Commander Maj. Gen. Chea Mon, right, hold talks at Chorm Sra Ngam border checkpoint in Anlong Veng district

Thai military insists that the talks with Cambodia remains bilataral

He sees the refusal of the military to accept ASEAN mediation as being inconsistent revealing Thailand’s weakness compared to Cambodia, which has been showing a coherent and pro-active policy.

Cambodia was the first one to call for third-party mediation in the border dispute over the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, taking the issue first to the UN Security Council before it was then taken to ASEAN. Bangkok had previously resisted Cambodia’s demands.

No formal notification yet

Meanwhile the Indonesian Foreign Ministry has not received any formal notification from Thailand that it rejects the agreed plan. But until now the observers have also not yet received

Their operating orders and do not even know where or how long they would be posted.

Cambodian officials say, the delay is caused by Thailand only, as Cambodia has immediately responded to all Indonesian letters involving the terms of reference. “If Thailand does not want the observers, Cambodia accepts them unilaterally," says a spokesman of the Cambodian government. Indonesia, however, would only proceed if both countries agree.

Difficult Test for ASEAN

The initial deal of allowing Indonesian observers to both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border marks a change in ASEAN’s approach that used to be known for its strict non-interference policy.

Southeast Asian foreign ministers and senior officials confer during Informal ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia

ASEAN is facing a difficult test in its first mediation attempt

With the goal of building a European Union-like community by 2015, the ASEAN Charter, which was signed a few years ago, obliges members to solve conflicts without violence. However, ASEAN does not have penalties for member states who do not comply with this regulation, says Asian expert Chachavalpongpun.

For him a solution to the deep rooted crisis over the Thai-Cambodian border will not come soon. And when it comes to the role of the Southeast Asian organization, he thinks, “the best thing ASEAN can do is to maintain the status quo and if they manage to make the two countries sign a sort of ceasefire agreement then the job is done.” Thailand and Cambodia both, he says, have a duty to seek an agreement on a proper demarcation.

Author: Anggatira Gollmer (Afp, Dpa, Antara)

Editor: Grahame Lucas

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