[Last week the National Thai Studies Centre hosted a discussion on the current border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. Here is the text of my presentation.]

Following the political turmoil that has gripped Thailand over the past few months, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the government of Samak Sundoravej has a commanding parliamentary majority. In the election of 23 December 2007 his People Power Party fell just a few seats short of an absolute majority. In the prolonged negotiations that followed, Samak was able to stitch together a coalition government that included all the minor parties. The Democrats sit alone on the opposition benches.

But the Democrats have some strong allies on the streets of Bangkok. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) whose vigorous protests helped to lay the groundwork for the coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, wasted little time declaring their opposition to the newly elected Samak government. During February 2008, the PAD were threatening to revive street protests and calling for the dissolution of the People Power Party. The basis for this threat was the Party’s links to Thaksin.

In the second half of May 2008 the PAD made good on its threat and moved its campaign to the streets of Bangkok. Their cause was energised by Samak’s rushed attempts to amend the 2007 constitution that had been drawn up during the term of the post-coup military-appointed government. Although Samak was following the procedure for amendment laid down in the constitution itself, it was easy for his opponents to argue that he was seeking to consolidate the dominance of political parties at the expense of independent institutions.

But these protests lacked the energy of the pre-coup campaign against Thaksin. It became increasingly clear that the PAD’s new effort was failing to attract either the grass roots or elite support that it had enjoyed prior to the coup. Samak had taken much of the heat out of the constitutional amendment issue by referring it to a Parliamentary committee. There was even talk of taking any changes to a national referendum.

Of course there were other problems for the government and potential opportunities for the opposition movement. Samak’s government faced various challenges in the courts but the impact of these cases on the government was not completely straight forward. Certainly they contributed to the atmosphere of political crisis, but as various cases have made their way through the system the charge that Samak’s government operated without any external checks and balances lost some of its potency.

The government has also faced pressure as a result of rising energy and fuel prices. But given the Thaksin government’s legacy of livelihood support and local economic stimulus-which Samak’s government inherited and the opposition movement regularly condemns-these economic issues are hardly going to form a potent foundation for a concerted attack on the government.

But, above all else, the key problem for the PAD lay in Samak’s electoral success. Challenging the legitimacy of a government that had been so recently and so convincingly elected was becoming increasingly difficult for an opposition movement that campaigned under the banner of democracy.

Samak also holds an important trump card – the threat of a snap election. Talk of an early election is enough to send opposition forces scurrying for cover. The Democrats have no appetite for yet another electoral loss. And the PAD are reluctant to expose their high profile, but quite localised, campaign to the cold winds of electoral opinion.

Instead the PAD have proposed a new form of political representation in which only 30 percent of the parliament would be elected, with the other 70 percent appointed. It is a desperate proposal from an organisation that realises it would almost certainly lose an electoral battle against Samak. And it is a proposal that has helped crystalise growing public concern about the fundamentally non-democratic philosophy of the PAD leadership. Some of these emerging sentiments were delightfully expressed in a headline from the satirical website Not The Nation: “People’s Alliance for Democracy Protests Against People, Alliances, and Democracy.”

The Phra Viharn (Preah Vihear in Khmer) issue gained prominence in Thailand primarily as a result of an opposition movement that was struggling to find an issue around which it could build a credible campaign against a recently elected government that enjoyed parliamentary and electoral dominance. Phra Viharn had been bubbling in the background of Thai public discussion for some time, but in late May and June 2008 it became a focus for opposition protest, as they sought to ramp up their campaign with the PAD march on government house and the Democrat’s pursuit of no-confidence motions in parliament.

Phra Viharn provided a potent symbol that could help energise a flagging opposition campaign.

Why was it such a useful symbol for the opposition movement in Thailand?

The Phra Viharn issue was consistent with the well established PAD strategy of appealing to the potent and emotion charged trinity of Nation, Religion and King. The geographic boundary of Thailand, and its representation as an impenetrable “geobody”, is a core symbol of the modern Thai nation. As a historical site, Phra Viharn is also useful in evoking a former period of national glory in which the extent of the Thai kingdom is imagined to be much extensive than it is now, before it was emasculated by colonial incursions. In the midst of the dispute, one major Thai newspaper even ran a series of articles about the territories that Thailand had lost to France and Britain. Anti-western sentiment, a persistent sub-plot in the campaign against Thaksin, can be usefully marshalled to the opposition cause.

The core symbolic defender of the Nation is, of course the King. In one of his first statements on the issue, PAD leader Sondhi wasted no time in linking the Samak government’s territorial betrayal at Phra Viharn with allegations that elements within the government were behind, or sympathetic to, material distributed in Thailand and on-line that was slanderous to the King and some of his closest confidants. In the PAD campaign, defence of Nation and defence of the King have been closely linked.

Apart from its broad symbolic purpose, Phra Viharn was also useful for the opposition movement because it could be readily linked to Thaksin, seemingly providing support for their central claim that Samak leads a proxy government. During his term as PM, Thaksin had taken some interest in the Phra Viharn issue and, in fact, he was due to inspect the temple with Hun Sen in September 2006. However the trip was cancelled in the wake of an alleged car-bomb assassination plot against Thaksin.

Since the coup, Thaksin was also rumoured to be considering investments in Cambodia and it was very easy for opposition figures to suggest that the Thai government’s support for the world heritage listing of Pra Viharn had been given in return for Cambodian concessions on contested oil and gas reserves that would commercially benefit Thaksin.

In some of the more flamboyant opposition material, Thaksin’s links with Cambodia have also involved his dabbling in highly potent forms of Khmer magic in an attempt to secure, or regain, his position of power in Thailand. On this point it’s worth noting that earlier this month, in response to a Cambodian “prayer for peace” conducted at Phra Viharn, Thai newspapers urged the residents of border provinces to wear royal yellow shirts to ward off the effects of the cross-border magic.

Most significantly, Thaksin’s involvement in the Phra Viharn issue was seemingly underlined by the fact that the Thai Foreign Minister who had conducted the negotiations with the Cambodians had been Thaksin’s legal representative in Thailand following the 2006 coup. To have someone so closely linked to Thaksin’s personal interests, conducting international negotiations on an issue so rich in symbolic potential was an invaluable gift to the opposition movement.

Another reason why Phra Viharn was useful to opposition forces was that it represented an opportunity to draw the military into political debate. In January 2008 there was a brief flurry when a ministry of defence committee accused the Cambodians of fabricating historical evidence to support their World Heritage application. This caused some Cambodian outrage but it was quickly hosed down by the newly elected Samak government. Last month the military concerns became public again when the Chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Supreme Command appeared at a PAD rally, in full uniform, to express his disappointment about the government’s handling of Phra Viharn.

The primary cause of the crisis of Phra Viharn is not the line of demarcation between Thailand and Cambodia. The primary cause is the dividing line that runs through contemporary Thai politics. Samak’s government hold a commanding parliamentary majority and there is no sign of a substantial shift in the sentiments of the electorate since the election of last December. The opposition movement has no coherent or credible response to this primacy. Their best hope in the current circumstances is that they can create an atmosphere of crisis in which core national symbols appear to be under threat. Some ham-fisted and inept acts on the part of the Samak government have assisted them in this cause.