Thai-Cambodian border clashes: Nationalist fever boils over
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Thai-Cambodian border clashes: Nationalist fever boils over

By Saksith Saiyasombut

It has been nearly a week since the tense situation at the Thai-Cambodian border at the disputed ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear escalated yet again, when troops on both sides exchanged gunfire and according to independent observers, killed 11 people on both sides. Even though no shooting has been reported since Tuesday, the current calm is more than fragile.

At the same time in Bangkok, the yellow-shirted PAD have been camping and rallying at Government House since late January, demanding the government to step down and calling for a stricter handling of the Thai-Cambodian border issue. By doing so, they are yet again playing the card of ultra-nationalism to justify their cause. But unlike at their last large-scale protest in 2008, this time it appears it is the only thing left for them is to cling on.


A Cambodian Buddhist monk walks toward the Cambodia's 11th century Hindu Preah Vihear temple, which was enlisted as UNESCO's World Heritage site in Preah Vihear province, about 245 kilometers (152 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011. Pic: AP.

Ever since the rally started on January 25, the PAD’s narrative and thus their constructed enemies were clear: Thai prime minister Abhsit, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, Thai defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan and the Cambodians at the border – they all have to leave in some way, whether its from their post or from the area the yellow shirts claim to be Thai soil. Additionally, the endless line of contributing speakers on the PAD stage are attacking the army for not being fierce enough with the issue, essentially calling them to reclaim the area by force.

But what is the PAD’s rationale behind the ultra-nationalistic sabre rattling and the constant ripping of the current Thai government? Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a diplomat-turned-academic, explains:

At a deeper level, however, the conflict reveals a power struggle between the government and the PAD, the two main bastions of royalism in domestic Thai politics. The PAD is apparently manipulating the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia to undermine the Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Relations between the two groups were not always so fractious. The Democrat Party and the PAD fought side-by-side to unseat the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and its subsequent proxies. They were both also willing to use anti-Cambodian nationalism as a rallying cry. (…)

But after it formed a government in late 2008 through a backroom deal brokered by the military, the Democrat Party gradually distanced itself from the PAD and its yellow-shirt protesters in an attempt to rebuild the government’s image. PAD members were infuriated. Many believed that they helped install the Democrat Party in power but never got the credit they deserved from the Abhisit government.

Thailand’s Rising Nationalism“, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2011 (full text can be read here)

Furthermore, political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak (also known to some as ‘the Quotemeister’), sees in the PAD a larger danger to the government than the red shirts:

PAD leading voices have since turned their oratory guns broadly at the powers-that-be, including the current army chief, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, and especially Mr Abhisit. (…)

Mr Sondhi (…) has been playing up his overseas Chinese roots in defiance of what he calls the ‘poo dee’, the blue-blooded high and mighty with privileged backgrounds. This ‘poo dee’ happens to coincide neatly with the red shirts’ battle cry in 2009-10 against the amataya, although no realignment of these two social movements appears in the offing. But if the various colours against the ‘poo dee’ and the amataya are lined up at a future point, the powers-that-be should be gravely concerned.

Where is the PAD going this time with its protests?“, by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Bangkok Post, February 8, 2011

Shawn Crispin of Asia Times Online, elaborates on another angle:

Still, some have speculated that the military has swung back towards the PAD with the transition from outgoing army commander General Anupong to new chief Prayuth as a way to pressure Abhisit out of his early election plan. With the reappearance of the PAD on Bangkok’s streets, this time as ultra-nationalists in defense of Thai territory, local newspapers have been awash in unexplained coup rumors. (…)

That leaves Abhisit to convince Prayuth that early polls are a better bet than backing the PAD and fomenting instability on the border.

Bombshells and rally cries“, by Shawn Crispin, Asia Times Online, February 8, 2011

The cracks between the PAD and the ruling Democrat Party were visible for some time already. The most recent scathing attacks by the yellow shirts are a more than crystal-clear sign that their bond is broken beyond repair. Apart from that, it reveals a jaded frustration among the PAD that not only in their view they were not being credited enough for bringing down three governments they saw as morally illegitimate to rule, only then to see the successor not being much better either.

The PAD’s experiment at participating in politics (by ‘normal’ means) in form of the New Politics Party ultimately failed to break ground in the political landscape and at the local voting booths, thus leading many senior figures, including Sondhi, to leave the party and return to the streets with the PAD, as they see it as the only way to bully through their cause. Furthermore, the jaded frustration indicates their struggle against growing irrelevancy and obscurity, with the also anti-government red shirts reenergizing during their last few rallies (which were invited by one PAD activist to join them in chasing out the government).

Meanwhile, the sabre rattling by the PAD’s rhetoric has reached a new low on Monday when the leader Sondhi Limthongkul has – well, read it yourself:

Yellow-shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul has urged the Thai military to seize Cambodian territory, including Angkor Wat, to barter for Preah Vihear Temple. (…)

The Thai armed forces should move forward to seize Battambang, Siem Riap, Angkor Wat and Koh Kong. And then, in negotiations which would be arbitrated by China and ASEAN, Thailand would barter them for Preah Vihear and force Cambodia to adopt the watershed for border demarcation instead of the 1:200,000 map, according to Sondhi.

He said that a diplomatic approach should not be used in a military campaign. Thailand must take the most advantageous position before any negotiation, and it is not making war with China or Vietnam, but with Cambodia which has no warships. Thailand must wield its greater military power when it has to.

‘[To] whoever says that we’re mad for war, none of us sitting here want our children to [go to war and] die, but to die for a great cause, to protect the land, is worth it.  We have 300,000 soldiers who are better equipped than Cambodian soldiers, but we lack the guts, because the senior military figures serve evil politicians.  Today, [Defence Minister] Gen Pravit Wongsuwan is not a soldier, but a politician who says anything for political gain.’

Sondhi urges Thai military to seize Angkor Wat in exchange for Preah Vihear“, Prachatai, February 9, 2011

P.S.: Nationalistic fervor is not exclusively a Thai issue here. The Cambodian blog KI-Media has an analysis about the situation across the border.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist still based in Hamburg, Germany. He can followed on Twitter @Saksith.