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Are Thailand and Cambodia Heading to War?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 9, 2011

A Cambodian soldier smokes a cigarette at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia

A Cambodian soldier smokes a cigarette at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia February 9, 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past week, fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over the disputed Preah Vihear border temple has left its bloodiest toll in at least a decade. At least seven people have been killed in recent days and dozens of soldiers on both sides wounded, as the Thai and Cambodian militaries trade rifle and artillery fire.

Now, the fact that people are getting killed over a small amount of disputed territory and an (admittedly beautiful) temple does, to many observers, seem absurd. But the conflict also points to a bigger problem: Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seems to have diminishing control over the Thai military, which is largely responsible for his place in office. On the Thai side, the conflict is being pushed by nationalists linked to the People’s Alliance for Democracy, but the military men taking action along the border often seem to be doing so either without informing Abhisit or informing his office well after the fact.

This is part of a disturbing and growing trend. It’s widely known in Thailand that the military helped broker the coalition government, with Abhisit at the head, bringing down several pro-Thaksin governments that followed Thaksin’s exile. But how much control does Abhisit have now over his armed forces? To take one example, the Thai military budget has roughly doubled in the past five years, yet the army is spending its money on seemingly useless projects like a new division based in the Northeast – a project long pushed by the military’s godfather, Prem Tinsulonanda, but which has relatively little real use today. (After all, the money could easily be used in the south, home to a serious insurgency, or on the border with Burma.)

Abhisit also appeared to have little control over the military’s actions during the violence in Bangkok during last April and May. And Abhisit seems unable to control the security forces’ meddling in, or denying help to, the investigations into the killings in Bangkok last April and May.

Where might this all lead? It’s not hard to imagine, particularly as the question of royal succession becomes more evident and the military increasingly feels it alone can defend the crown. Recently, army chief Prayuth chan-Ocha has been publicly denying that the military plans to stage a coup, as rumors of the possibility swirl in Bangkok. But, remember that only days before the last coup, in 2006, the military was denying it had any such intentions. Don’t bet against it this year either.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Melissa Rossi

    Thoughtful analysis, and I agree that the military seems to be acting on its own accord, as it did last spring. BusinessWeek is now reporting that PM Abhisit says he will hold elections before end of June. Theoretically, if true, that would avert a coup. But who knows in Thailand. What do you think, Josh?
    AND isn’t much of this simply nationalist banter — with PAD/Yellow Shirts pushing the panic button (perhaps) to distract from UDD/Red Shirt protests that are again rising up?

  • Posted by American Abroad, Bangkok Thailand

    If anybody really thinks Apisit is in control, they are dreaming. The problem in Thailand is that nobody really knows exactly who has the power and “calls the shots”? Anytime you see a rise of nationalism, you can bet there’s a military figure rising to power. This case with Preah Vihear illustrates how little control the current prime minister really has over the Thai military. You ask any group of lawyers in Thailand about the current Preah Vihear case; and most will tell you that the laws are taking a back seat to military force. This isn’t new in Thailand. The Thai military has a history of ripping up constitutions and subsequently couping whoever they please. Apparently, they aren’t afraid of violating international agreements as well (such as in the case of the 1962 agreement with Cambodia regarding Preah Vihear).

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