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Slapping Asean’s Face

  • (Photo courtesy: STEPHFF)

The military standoff between Thailand and Cambodia has embarrassed their neighbours.

Cambodia and Thailand have slapped Asean right in its face at a critical time when the regional group’s foreign ministers are holding their annual meeting and regular consultations with key nations, including the United States, China, India and Japan.

The military standoff between the two countries has embarrassed their neighbours, who take pride that their organisation is one of the few with an effective mechanism to maintain regional peace and to resolve problems among themselves amicably without outside interference.

Though leaders in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand remain skeptical, many Asean leaders believe Asean will draw ever closer to following in the steps of the European Union once all members ratify the Asean Charter this year.

Such optimism can only become the butt of jokes in the international community given the recent behaviour of the leaders of Cambodia and Thailand.

"Cambodia will soon hold general elections and Prime Minister Hun Sen needs a unifying factor to woo the voters."

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rightly represented the feelings of other leaders of the 10-member association when he talked about the escalating tension between Thailand and Cambodia.

Cambodia directly reported the dispute to the UN Security Council (UNSC) without prior consultations with other Asean members, an organisation which played a crucial rule in ending the prolonged war in Cambodia in the 1980s.

Placing this dispute in UNSC hands puts Asean in an awkward position and makes it more difficult to find a regional solution. Although Cambodia insisted the report to the UNSC was not extraordinary in nature, that country’s leaders need to remember it has humiliated Asean by belittling its capability to mediate a peaceful solution.

Thailand — one of the five founding members of the organisation — is exhibiting a similar reluctance to engage its own neighbours, which only strengthens skepticism among many parties in the international community about the relevance of Asean.

“The situation has escalated dangerously, with troops from both sides facing off on disputed territory near the Preah Vihear temple. Asean cannot stand idly by without damaging its credibility,” Prime Minister Lee said when opening the 41st Asean ministerial meeting in Singapore on July 21.

While acknowledging it is impossible to overcome the conflict in a short time, we need to remember the leaders of both Cambodia and Thailand now face pressing political agendas at home. Cambodia will soon hold general elections and Prime Minister Hun Sen needs a unifying factor to woo the voters.

Meanwhile the incumbent Thai government is facing strong pressures from the opposition and street protesters. We do hope both leaders restrain from playing a dangerous game just to ensure their political survival.

Thailand is scheduled to assume the rotating Asean chair for one year starting July 28 and to host the Asean summit in Bangkok this year. How can it effectively chair the meetings when the country is facing border disputes with Cambodia?

Thailand needs to seriously consider voluntarily giving up the position for the sake of Asean credibility and to hand over the chair to the next host, which is Viet Nam, according to the alphabetical rotation. There have been two precedents: Both Laos and Burma gave up their turn because of domestic problems.

Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda has proposed the establishment of an Asean-led contact group to mediate the dispute. Asean leaders quickly need to take action before the Thai-Cambodia dispute escalates out of control.

Asean’s failure to play a key role in resolving this sensitive issue will only damage its reputation as an effective and powerful forum to resolve conflicts among its members.

For its part, Indonesia needs to take immediate actions to help reduce tension while finding a mechanism to end the conflict peacefully.

But, no matter how sincerely their neighbours work for peace, if the leaders of Cambodia and Thailand do not rally enough statesmanlike spirit to find an amicable solution to the dispute, future military conflicts are unavoidable. (The Jakarta Post/ AsiaNews)

MySinchew 2008.07.29


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