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Can Thailand and Cambodia Step Back from the Brink?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 29, 2011

Thai army tanks travel on a road near the Thai-Cambodia border in Surin province April 28, 2011.

Thai army tanks travel on a road near the Thai-Cambodia border in Surin province April 28, 2011. (Sukree Sukplang/Courtesy Reuters)

A temporary ceasefire in the fighting over the disputed Preah Vihear temple on the Thai-Cambodian border appears to be over. According to multiple news reports, new skirmishes broke out in the past day on the border, where fighting has over the past week already killed sixteen people. After failed meetings between senior ministers, and minimal intervention by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the two countries apparently now are going to go to The Hague for a ruling from the International Court of Justice.

Will that help? It’s doubtful. International authorities already have ruled on the case in the past –the ICJ found four decades ago that the temple was under Cambodian sovereignty — but that has not stopped fighting.  What is needed now is some level of rationality, not from the senior civilian leadership in both countries, but from the armed forces themselves, which, at least in Thailand, operate largely independent of the prime minister’s office, and have utilized the dispute to entrench the army’s central role in political life. Thus far, in fact, the civilian leadership of Thailand, which may well want the dispute to end, seems powerless to do anything about it.

Will the two countries’ militaries intervene to stop the senseless fighting? Going to the ICJ is at least a positive step, but unless the civilian governments can gain better control of the armed forces, it is unlikely to produce a true resolution.

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