Friday, July 25, 2008

Preah Vihear conflict is unlikely to conclude with elections

The consensus among the Phnom Penh expatriate community seems to be that this recent iteration of the ongoing Preah Vihear conflict, now in its second week, will quickly fizzle out after the Cambodian national elections this weekend. This notion is shared by Thai Prime Minister Samak who said earlier in the week "I think the dispute will ease and can be resolved more easily through negotiations after the election." Given his role as one of the central provocateurs of the recent drama, this is heartening. But its possible that those thinking the conflict will end without bloodshed are underestimating the stakes for both sides.

The Thai government, which has been teetering from the same forces that toppled its predecessor, is under intense pressure for having allowed Cambodia to win its petition to list Preah Vihear as World Heritage Site by UNESCO. A misstep here - any sign of backing down on what the opposition has seized upon as an important symbol of Thai sovereignty, will surely be used as a final tipping point for the already bloodied PPP.

In order to further entangle the Thai government and limit its options, the opposition has deployed protesters, or "pilgrims" as they are calling themselves, to the temple site in order to "take back Thai territory".

Given the position of the Thai government Cambodia is in a better position to give a little, especially after the election are held. But "a little" might not be what is called for. The recent conflict started over a listing by a cultural organization - no real territorial watershed. The question is what is the minimum that the Thai opposition would accept given that they only gain from the conflict continuing? Delisting of the site? A permanent stationing of troops on the Cambodian side of the border?

The Cambodian opposition, which has also siezed on the Preah Vihear issue, are not yet able to muster street demos that could cause Hun Sen to blink. But it should be remembered that in 2003 the alleged suggestion that Ankhor Wat should be under Thai territory by a television star sparked riots and an attack of the Thai embassy. Hun Sen knows, that election or no election, a sign of weakness on this issue could quickly be used by the opposition to get people into the street. And he has also seen what has happened in Thailand and would not want even the beginnings of it here.

It is dangerous for Hun Sen to stand on this issue but he might see it as more dangerous to yield too much. On the other hand, with the Thai opposition already having the upper hand, the Thai government cannot afford any compromise if they want to stay in power. This dynamic on both sides seems unlikely to allow for an easy settlement and provides the possibility for a real shooting war.

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