Cambodia and Thai Crisis

Khmer Times, Thursday, 29 May 2014; News by Chheang Vannarith

Thailand, the land of smiles, has fallen into crisis since the military coup in 2006. The political upheaval led to a weakened economy and fractured society. The 12th military coup since 1932 on May 22 led by Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha worsened the situation.  The international community condemned the act and called for restoration of stability and full respect of democratic principles. The US government reacted by suspending the USD 3.5 million military aid to Thailand. The United Kingdom is also reviewing its military ties with Thailand. 

Southeast Asian neighbours also raised their concern. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “Singapore expresses grave concern over the latest developments in Thailand. We hope that all parties involved will exercise restraint and work towards a positive outcome, and avoid violence and bloodshed…Thailand is an important regional country and a key member of ASEAN. Prolonged uncertainties will set back Thailand and the region as a whole.”

As the second largest economy in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, Thailand, the hub of regional trade, investment, and tourism, plays a significant role in regional development and integration. As one of the founding fathers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) back in 1967, Thailand by all indicators is the de facto regional leader in mainland Southeast Asia. It is also an attractive destination for millions of migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

However, that international position and role began to wane as the crisis looming large. The crisis disrupts ASEAN regional community building process and delays regional physical connectivity projects. It disturbs regional peace and stability and may lead to another regional economic crisis if there are no quick realistic solutions and appropriate crisis-exit strategy.

Cambodia is greatly affected by the Thai crisis since it is closely interconnected and interdependent with Thailand. Its bilateral trade with Thailand accounted for USD 4.5 billion last year. Every year, about one million international tourists who visit Cambodia enter through Thailand. There are about 250,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. The crisis put their safety at greater risk. After the coup, Thailand unilaterally closed some border channels and restricted some Cambodian vehicles from entering Thailand.

Cambodia-Thai border disputes have not been completely solved. Due to the  Thai crisis, the implementation of the judgement by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 11 November 2013 was shelved. No significant progress has been made. The opposition group in Thailand opposed the court’s judgement. If this group comes to power after the military coup, it may stir border tensions and conflicts with Cambodia similar to that  experienced from 2008 to 2011.

Cambodia’s government took measures to avoid misunderstanding between the two countries. Minister of Interior Sar Kheng requested local authorities and armed forces to “promote better cooperation and relationship with their Thai counterparts and  not to conduct any movement of forces.” Prime Minister Hun Sen also clarified Cambodia’s position with regard to the Thai crisis by standing firm on the principle of non-interference and peaceful co-existence with its neighbours. On May 27, he stated, “Cambodia’s Constitution does not allow any foreigners to use its territory as a base for armed forces to attack the government of another state.”

How has the crisis evolved?

The crisis is rooted in a ferocious power struggle between the old elites (the military, the monarchy, judiciary, and Bangkok oligarchs) and the rising populist group (Thaksin’s  network). Under his populist policies, telecom mogul Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party won the elections in 2001 and 2005. His overwhelming popularity threatened the power base of the old elites. Without much surprise, he was ousted in 2006 by a military coup; later in 2008, he was charged for corruption and sentenced to  two years in absentia. That sparked the beginning of  the Thai crisis.

Contemporarily,  there are multiple crises in Thailand: political, economic, social, and institutional.  Political polarisation generated by power competition between the two groups has reached its peak. Eight years after the 2006 coup, Thaksin lives his life in self-exile but his networks in Thailand are still active. He has become the most divisive figure in Thai politics. In 2011, his younger sister Yingluck Sinawatra assumed the premiership after her Pheu Thai Party won the general election. However, the opposition accused her of working under the sway of Thaksin.

The unwise attempt by Yingluck’s government to push for the controversial amnesty bill facilitating the return of Thaksin triggered anti-government protests in November 2013. The opposition cried foul. A big wave of anti-government protests in coordination with the elites led to the collapse of the democratically elected government. The ill-fated Yingluck was forced to dissolve the parliament in December 2013. She later assumed care-taker  premiership status before she was forced to resign by the Constitutional Court in May 2014 for  abuse of power.

The Thai economic has faltered after months of political crisis. Recession is on the cards.  Growth rate is expected to hit a low of about 2.5 percent this year.  To avert economic crisis, the junta government prioritized the rice payment scheme, which has been hanging from last December, and also the fiscal policy planning for 2015. Such policy, if that is any indication, is politically motivated. It aims to lure rural farmers who are  strong supporters of the Pheu Thai Party. Business confidence remains low and the investment environment highly unpredictable. It depends on how resilient these bureaucratic institutions are.

In most aspects, the  Thai political society is deeply divided. Social harmony which has been built and promoted over the past centuries is now at stake. People started to define their intolerable political boundary. The political dynamics of “red shirt vs. yellow shirts” remain the core of Thai societal chasm. Singapore’s foreign minister Shanmugam observed, “There is deep polarisation and Thailand has to find a way of bridging that polarisation and find a structure for society that is workable for itself, and only the Thais can do it.”

The perceived impartiality of the constitutional court regarding its judgement on May 7 to dismiss Yingluck and her nine cabinet ministers is negative to the role and image of the Thai judiciary. It leads to the loss of public trust in this institution. The decision naturally is in favour of the old elites and the opposition group. According to a Thai prominent scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun, it was part of “coordinated acts” against Yingluck government. Some call it a “judicial coup.”

What is the outlook?

It would be a quixotic effort to pressure the junta to quickly restore civilian administration. The military will be holding on to power for quite some time. It will try to consolidate its power and may create an unelected reform council or peoples  council, as demanded by the anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, to appoint new leaders. This is by any standard against democratic principles.

The political trend remains murky and fuzzy. Political crisis dents the economic prospects and may eventually lead to a full-scale economic crisis in the coming years if  political reconciliation and accommodation are not possible by the end of this year.

To wend its way out of the crisis, Thailand must restore political stability and national unity through democratic consolidation and good governance. Majority rule with the respect of minority rights is key. It needs to regain public trust and confidence in order to shore up fast-slowing growth.

It needs to develop both formal and informal institutions and mechanisms to heal the past, reconcile the differences, and align the interests of the conflicting parties.

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