The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over land at Phreah Vihear is shaping up as a test case for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations‘ ability to help resolve conflict among its members.
Indonesia is the current chair of Asean. Indonesia president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said on Monday that this meant “we have a moral responsibility to become part of the solution”. But the extent to which Asean is able to exercise that responsibility is limited.
Yudhoyono sent his foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, to Cambodia on Monday and Thailand on Tuesday for talks.
Yudhoyono says he had previously met with both Abhisit and Hun Sen. “At the time they committed to exercising restraint,” he said.
However, these have proved empty words as Cambodian and Thai troops exchanged fire again, in what academic Carl Thayer described as the most serious dispute between Asean members since its formation in 1967.
After speaking to the two countries’ foreign ministers, Marty stressed that Asean’s role is limited and that it was down to Cambodia and Thailand to negotiate a solution themselves. “Any engagement by Asean … is not to replace the bilateral approach, but contrarily to support the bilateral approach,” he said.
Asean is principally an economic partnership between 10 Southeast Asian countries. Its professed aims include promoting “economic growth, social progress and cultural development … regional peace and stability … [and] active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest”, among other social, educational, and industrial initiatives.
However, although its “fundamental principles” include “settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner”, the organisation has no means by which to enforce this. It is constitutionally bound not to interfere in internal affairs. It can’t even offer itself as an arbitrator. “There is no way for Asean to push its own interests,” Marty said earlier. “Both countries need to settle the problem on their own.”
All Asean can really do is encourage negotiations.
The situation has prompted some academics to suggest that Asean should be changed so that it can make a difference. Alexius Jemadu from Indonesia’s Pelita Harapan university said that the non-interference policy precludes Asean from resolving conflicts. He told the Jakarta News that the bloc should consider extending its powers in conflict resolution among its members.
The organisation has already been criticised for promoting human rights but then backtracking on specifics due to its non-interference constraint.
Whether Asean should be extending its role from one of promoting partnership between members to one of enforcing this is questionable. But the dispute is something of an embarassment for an organisation that is pushing hard to promote the 10 countries as a unified entity in order to boost its power as an economic force internationally. Asean’s secretrary-general, former Thai politician Surin Pitsuwan, said this week that the dispute could impact on confidence in the group, along with affecting tourism and investment.