Thai politics costing lives. Again.

8. Feb 2011

Thai politics have been somewhat baffling the past two weeks. So has Cambodian politics. And as always when the two Kingdoms clash and create irrational political atmospheres, people have suffered. In this case, several people have died. But let’s start with the beginning:

About three weeks ago a Thai delegation made a field trip to the disputed temple Preah Vihear. Thailand and Cambodia have been fighting over the temple for decades and despite the temple being awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice in Haag, Thailand has never recognized the ownership. The conflict last flared up when the temple was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

The seven delegates – including an MP and several high profiled politicians – were arrested by Cambodian border police. Shortly after, Thailand’s nationalistic People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – also known as the yellow shirts – started a demonstration, demanding their government tighten up the policies towards Cambodia.

Actually, they demanded them tightened up quite a bit: They wanted to repeal a Memorandum of Understanding from 2000, they wanted Thailand to withdraw from the UNESCO Committee and all the Cambodians living on the Thai side of the border be expelled.

Yes. The last one was: Kick out all the Cambodians, who happen to live on what Thailand believes to be the Thai side of the border. That will settle the dispute for sure.  

Anyways. That was weeks ago and things have only deterioated from there. PAD has refused to negotiate with the government and is still demonstrating in the streets, causing clogged traffic and general disturbance in the area. Of the seven arrested Thais, five were released, but in an unfortunate and provocating twist, the two remaining detainees were convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years.

The PAD immediately demanded the Government got them released. That is, of course, not possible – Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has no right to extract people, who are accused, prosecuted and convicted on Cambodian soil.

So now they demand he step down or else…

And they are not alone: The arch enemies, The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the redshirts – has been gathering bigger and bigger crowds since the state of emergency was lifted in December. They have announced a mass rally this Sunday and their demand echoes the PAD’s: The Government must step down.

However, they have not arrived yet, and PM Abhisit has other concerns as well. In the South, insurgents are fighting for an independent state and that conflict has proved untamable for decades. There are almost daily reports of casualties from the three most Southern provinces of Thailand, and rogue groups of dissidents have recently taken to targeting teachers of the local schools in the area. While the conflict have been there for so long the Government has almost gotten away with just shrugging their shoulders at the on-going violence, the Teachers Unions are weighty voices and stories of attacks on schools are difficult to ignore.

Meanwhile, the Northern border is not much better: Burmese troops have since the election in Burma in November intensified their battle with the local Karen militia, making life for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps by the border unstable with frequent battles and intimidation.

And then, four days ago, the troops posted along the Preah Vihear border from both Cambodia and Thailand started to take out the heavy artillery. Reports of casualties vary from five (BBC) to 64 (different local media) and while many have fled the area, some of the villagers have decided to stay. And fight if necessary.

Who can blame them? As the above account reveals, it is very easy to summarize the situation without taking into account how much these situations affect the people living with the violence.  The villagers have lived there for generations and their livelihoods are destroyed by the fighting, yet there are no reports on dialogue with the people in the South, North and now, East.

Of course these days the main focus is on conflict by the Preah Vihear temple, as it rightly should be – there have been armed fighting there for four days  and it does not seem to end anytime soon.

But the focus is on Abhisit and whether he steps down because of it, not on how to solve it or on the people affected by it.

And then, Sunday, something happened that did not get much focus either:

Amidst the fighting a bomb blew up part of the 1100-year-old Preah Vihear temple, the temple this whole conflict is about.  


Anya Palm

Freelance journalist based in Bangkok