October 16, 2008 / 5:53 AM / 11 years ago

Q+A: Cambodia-Thailand border dispute - what next?

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai and Cambodian military commanders held talks across their disputed border on Thursday after the most serious clash in years left two Cambodian soldiers dead and 10 Thais in Cambodian hands.

The following Q+A, based on interviews with regional diplomats and analysts, examines some of the main issues:

Who/what is behind the sudden outbreak of shooting?

Both sides accuse the other of firing first. Even without the rhetoric and propaganda, it would be next to impossible to get to the bottom of the initial contact between troops who have been facing off for months in jungle-clad, hilly terrain.

Analysts say it is more helpful to consider who stands to gain. By that measure, the Thai army and government, who are both under pressure from a street movement that inflamed a border dispute around the Preah Vihear temple, have questions to answer.

“It’s hard to see how Cambodia gains from starting a war with Thailand at this point,” said Tony Kevin, a former Australian ambassador to Phnom Penh and now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“But if you look at the very tense and riven state of Thai politics, it’s easy to see how a Cambodian war could be of interest as a distraction,” he said.

Will it get worse?

It is hard to see it escalating into an all-out war.

Thailand’s vastly superior forces would be sure to win but would sustain casualties against a determined force of mainly ex-Khmer Rouge guerrillas who know the terrain and, more importantly, where millions of old landmines are buried.

As a richer country of 63 million people taking on a deeply impoverished nation of 13 million, Thailand would also be seen internationally as the aggressor if the conflict grew.

There is little prospect of it dying down altogether.

The Thai government and military have very little scope to back off given the domestic political situation in Bangkok, where street protesters accuse the government of selling off Thai soil, and criticize the army for not launching a coup.

Hun Sen is in a much stronger position domestically, having won an election landslide in July to add to his two decades in power. The wily ex-Khmer Rouge soldier knows that any perceived weakness against an old enemy will damage his standing. Who might step in to calm things down?

Singapore and Jakarta have both called for restraint, suggesting the immediate referee could the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Thailand and Cambodia are both members.

But Cambodia feels ASEAN is compromised at present due to Thailand holding of the 10-member body’s annually rotating chair. The organization’s current secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, is also a Thai.

The conflict would have to escalate significantly before the U.N. Security Council got involved. The United States is also preoccupied with a financial crisis and presidential election.

China increasingly sees itself as an actor in this corner of Southeast Asia, but whether it gets involved remains unclear.

Editing by Darren Schuettler and Paul Tait

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