Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Myanmar’s ruling junta may be the ultimate bad boy in Southeast Asia, but the stubborn attitude of the junta is not always the primordial cause of friction in the region. If achieving unity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is almost impossible, Myanmar should not get all the blame. Also worthy of disgust and concern is the petty but detrimental infighting among ASEAN members.

For example, there are still unsettled border disputes between Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. Indonesia is accusing Malaysia of stealing its cultural heritage. Thailand and Cambodia are feuding over the ownership of the historic Preah Vihear temple and the four square kilometers of territory around it.

The recent U.S.-ASEAN Summit was an opportunity for regional leaders to resolve these conflicts. Fortunately for Malaysia and Indonesia, their leaders decided to be friendly during the event. Steps were taken to improve political and economic ties between the two countries.

But the diplomatic row between Thailand and Cambodia has worsened in the past few weeks. Thailand and Cambodia recalled their ambassadors from each other’s capital. An energy exploration deal between the two nations was suspended. The issues are obviously no longer confined to a border dispute. What or who fueled the higher level of animosity between the two neighbors?

The decision of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to appoint Thailand’s controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as his special economic adviser did not amuse Thai authorities. Thailand interpreted this move as an intrusion into its internal affairs. The quarrel intensified when Thaksin arrived and stayed in Phnom Penh for five days to give a lecture on the global economic crisis.

Thai officials immediately petitioned for the extradition of Thaksin, who is facing a two-year jail term for corruption. Cambodia refused the request, arguing that Thaksin is a political, not criminal, convict. Also, Hun Sen considers Thaksin his “eternal friend.”

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup. To escape serving a prison term for corruption, he has been living in many countries around the world. The billionaire politician believes he could not get a fair trial in Thailand. He is accusing the present government of being illegitimate and repressive.

Angered by Cambodia’s refusal to extradite Thaksin, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has threatened to close the Thailand-Cambodia borders, which could disrupt and hurt the economic activities in the region. Thai authorities are also preparing to evacuate their citizens in Cambodia in case a war erupts between the two nations.

It is difficult to ascertain Hun Sen’s real motive in appointing Thaksin as his adviser. He knew it would provoke a negative reaction in Thailand. He knew it would further strain relations between two countries. His action definitely reflected his deep anger against the Bangkok government, which ordered a buildup of Thai troops in the Preah Vihear territory last year.

Thaksin, a master at using the media for maximum political effect, agreed to accept Cambodia’s offer during the same week that the ASEAN Summit was held in Thailand. Thaksin always manages to steal the headlines every time Thailand hosts an international event.

But his decision to become Hun Sen’s adviser could ruin his plan of staging a grand political comeback. Thaksin’s political rivals and some media analysts are accusing the former leader of being a traitor to Thailand for accepting a post in a rival nation.

It is understandable for Abhisit to hate both Thaksin and Hun Sen. The two “eternal friends” are obviously working together to undermine Abhisit’s administration. But the Oxford-educated leader should not lose his cool.

Abhisit should be more diplomatic while not losing his assertiveness. He should study the results of a Bangkok University poll conducted last week, which showed that the majority of respondents preferred a soft approach when negotiating with Cambodia. The same poll also showed that an overwhelming majority is opposed to the closing of the Thailand-Cambodia border.

Closing the border today would not only hurt the economies of the two countries, it would also jeopardize the process of normalizing the relationship of the two neighboring nations.

Hun Sen, Thaksin and Abhisit will all manage to survive the current political tensions between Cambodia and Thailand. They can even benefit from the turmoil if they calculate their moves.

Those who stand to lose in this political drama are the citizens of both countries. Instead of celebrating the common history which Cambodia and Thailand share together, their leaders are finding fault with one another. Instead of striving to build a strong unified economy in the region, they are threatening to destroy the livelihood and economic prospects of their neighbors.

Prolonging the diplomatic impasse between Cambodia and Thailand is not good for ASEAN. It is a global embarrassment since it exposes the inability of ASEAN to foster unity and camaraderie among its members. ASEAN leadership is needed to close the gap between Thailand and Cambodia.

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