This weekend hostilities between Thailand’s and Cambodia’s forces at the disputed Preah Vihear border area eased, with military commanders reporting proudly that only light weapons were now being deployed. They then agreed a ceasefire to allow the disposal of the bodies of casualties.
The news will come as a relief to the Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who aims to dissolve parliament this week in preparation for a general election towards the end of June. The military that supported Abhisit’s appointment is increasingly looking beyond his control, and he will be hoping not to be upstaged by them – or worse – in the coming weeks.
At Preah Vihear matters of fact are as disputed as the boundary line. When the first clashes of 2011 began on February 4, both sides claimed that they had killed large numbers of opposing forces, and suffered few or no losses of their own. Yet of the total 80 fatalities claimed by officials on the first day, just four were corroborated by independent sources.
Disparities between Thai army, Cambodian army, and independent reports have continued since then, although the casualty figures have become less inflated. In the most recent spate of fighting since April 22, the various death toll claims have been in approximate agreement: about 16 soliders and one civilian. What has remained controversial is the question of who started it. With each resumption, both sides have said the other fired the first shot.
Considering the question of motive, onlookers have highlighted the political forces that might benefit from the crisis. For years Preah Vihear has been a flashpoint for nationalist fervour in both countries.
On the Cambodian side, Hun Sen has no great need for a boost at present. The parliamentary election is a distant two years away and Hun’s party holds a comfortable majority.
The picture is quite different for Thailand. An election is imminent and the country’s hardline nationalists fear that the Democrat party (พรรคประชาธิปัตย์) – which they effectively installed following the yellow shirt protests of 2008 – could lose to their enemies, the Phuea Thai party (พรรคเพื่อไทย), which has links to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Parties led or backed by Thaksin have gained the most votes in every legislative election of the past decade.
In December last year Veera Somkwamkid, the leader of yellow shirt offshoot Thai Patriots Network, was detained by Cambodian troops for trespassing in the Preah Vihear area. He was subsequently convicted of espionage. Yellow shirts used the case to attack the current government for not defending Thai sovereignty, even going so far as to suggest that Abhisit’s stance was treasonous.
When it comes to election year, a battle over national territory could well favour those occupying the continuum between patriotism and authoritarian nationalism. But more worryingly, some observers think that the dispute could be used to justify a more conclusive move to prevent the red-shirted prai (commoners) wresting power from the amart (elite).
The Thai military has a long record of conducting coups if the elections don’t go the right way. This year it is flexing its muscles both on the border and in or around the capital Bangkok. Were army commander-in-chief Prayuth Chan-ocha to judge the crisis as grounds for asserting stability (i.e. taking over), he could eliminate the possibility of a government being formed by the reds he clearly hates.
But fighting has failed to escalate, and a pre-election coup now looks unlikely. Prayuth has probably been convinced that ousting his own man in Abhisit would not be a good move in the long term. Instead attention appears to have moved to gagging and demonising the opposition using the tried-and-tested method of lèse-majesté accusations. In the past two weeks, red-sympathising radio stations have been shut down, academics arrested, and politicians have been trading LM charges. Prayuth has been involved in several of these actions.
The military has always been a force in Thai politics, and this year appears to be no different. What remains to be seen is if the most powerful man in Thailand is the prime minister or Prayruth.