Thai-Cambodia border row exposes Asean’s Achilles’ heel

By John Grafilo, DPA,

Singapore : The failure of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) to settle an escalating border row between two of its members has sorely exposed the bloc’s weakness in resolving disputes within the organization.

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Fresh from its successful work in spearheading an international humanitarian mission into cyclone-devastated Myanmar, the 10-country Asean abdicated from mediating in the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

Cambodia had sought the group’s help this week, but Asean’s foreign ministers maintained that the “bilateral process must be allowed to continue,” referring to efforts by Thailand and Cambodia to negotiate.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said that during the just concluded Asean ministerial meetings in the city-state, Cambodia had proposed the creation of an Asean contact group that could help resolve the problem.

“The proposal found favour with a number of foreign ministers, but there was also a general view that the bilateral process should be allowed to continue, and there is still no consensus for the formation of such a group,” he said.

Diplomatic sources said Thailand rejected Asean’s mediation and was adamant the issue has to be resolved bilaterally.

Hours after Asean turned down Cambodia’s plea, a disappointed Phnom Penh turned to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene in the dispute.

The row over the land near the roughly 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear Temple worsened this month when Unesco approved Cambodia’s application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site.

An estimated 2,000 Thai and Cambodian troops are now facing each other across the border around the temple, situated between Si Sa Khet and Preah Vihear provinces in Thailand and Cambodia, respectively, about 400 km northeast of Bangkok.

While soldiers from both sides were shown on television sitting side by side and talking to each other amiably, the situation remained uneasy.

Analysts said the dispute and the subsequent failure of Asean to help bickering members settle their disagreements underscored the need to flesh out a dispute-settlement mechanism provided for in the newly drafted charter for the organization that consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The charter, which was approved during the 2007 leaders summit, also held in Singapore, would make the bloc a legal entity and a rules-based organization. It also provides for the creation of a human rights body and a dispute-settlement mechanism.

But a high-level panel of senior Asean officials was not due to present their recommendations on the subject until the leaders summit in Bangkok in December.

“Thailand and Cambodia have slapped Asean right in the face,” Indonesia’s Jakarta Post newspaper charged.

“The military standoff between the two countries has embarrassed their neighbours, who take pride that their organization is one of the few with an effective mechanism to maintain regional peace,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

“Placing this dispute in the UNSC hands put Asean in an awkward position and makes it more difficult to find a regional solution,” it added.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Thai-Cambodia row underscored the need for Asean members to ratify the charter – Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have yet to do so – so the organization could have a “rules-based governing framework” to address such issues within and outside Asean.

“Asean could not sit idly by without damaging its credibility,” he said. “As a region, it is vital that we continue to move forward on Asean cooperation and integration.”