Thailand-Cambodia Border Cools Off

Soldier near border - photoUsually I, like other bloggers and journalists, focus on the world’s “hot spots” where conflicts are raging or getting worse. But this unbalanced view of the world ignores the places where conflicts are coming under control or getting less violent.  Today I want to consider one such place.

There is a small disputed parcel of land along the Thai-Cambodian border that has seen fighting in recent years between the Thai and Cambodian armies. This is very unusual in the world, because regular national armies are not fighting each other anywhere on the scale of all-out war. (The last such was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and a mini-war lasted 5 days in 2008 between Russia and Georgia.) Little clashes that do occur between these armies, such as last year’s shelling of a South Korean community by North Korea, tend to de-escalate rather than ramp up to war.

In the past, a border dispute such as that between Thailand and Cambodia could have easily led to an all-out war — and indeed extensive changes in borders as a result. But today the international community has developed a fairly strong taboo on changing borders by force. The very small-scale disputed territories around the world, many of them now being tiny islands, are not worth an all-out war, and the international community has invented better ways to resolve such conflicts. In the Thailand-Cambodia case, the World Court was central to the resolution.

By way of background, the territory is next to an ancient temple once claimed by both countries but easily accessible only on the Thai side (cliffs face the Cambodian side). In 1962 the World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia, a decision grudgingly accepted by Thailand. However, in 2008 Cambodia got UNESCO to declare the temple a World Heritage Site, and tensions flared over the surrounding area, less than two square miles, where the border has never been agreed.

In October 2008 and April 2009 the two armies exchanged fire, with several soldiers killed. I remember noticing at the time that Cambodia’s response was not, “we will fight to the last drop of blood for our honor and territorial integrity.” It was “we’re taking you to the UN Security Council.”

This past February, more clashes killed 8 people and forced tens of thousands from their homes. The fighting spread to a couple of other disputed territories before dying down. The UN Security Council asked ASEAN to manage the conflict, and ASEAN turned to Indonesia to provide cease-fire monitors. But in April, 17 more people were killed in renewed fighting. Leaders of ASEAN at their summit earlier this month expressed concern about the border dispute and the possibility of war.

In May, Cambodia went back to the World Court to demand that Thailand remove its troops from the disputed land around the temple. Instead, in July the Court issued an unusual ruling telling both sides to withdraw forces from the area and set up a demilitarized zone. It was unusual because the Court did not just rule on the ownership of territory — which it has done with great success in a number of cases around the world — but laid out a plan for troop movements and conflict de-escalation. How is that going to work? The World Court ordering national armies to redeploy to new positions in conflict zones? (The World Court and what army?)

Well, this week Thailand’s defense minister traveled to Cambodia for the 8th meeting of the General Border Committee, and the two sides agreed to implement the Court’s ruling, with the help of Indonesian supervision. The conflict is de-escalating.

The international community has succeeded in preventing war in this case. Norms and taboos about borders limited the dispute to small territories. Key  roles were played by the UN Security Council, ASEAN, and especially the World Court. Another big factor in the successful outcome is the fact that both Thailand and Cambodia are developing economies where leaders get their legitimacy from delivering prosperity through trade and engagement with the global economy. War does not fit into that picture.

If the Thailand-Cambodia border dispute had escalated to all-out fighting between the two national armies, it would have been front-page news. Instead, because the international community succeeded in preventing that war, the conflict is hardly “news” at all. That is why so many people think that war is increasing when in fact the opposite is true. So let’s take a day and notice a “dog that didn’t bark” — the war that might have happened in an earlier age, but didn’t today.

One response to “Thailand-Cambodia Border Cools Off

  1. It is true that world media doesn’t pay attention to peaceful negotions like this case. It indicates that media need to learn more about it’s purpose.