Cambodian soldiers being withdrawn from the area near Preah Vihear temple

On 18 July 2012, I was at Preah Vihear temple and had an opportunity to see a grand ceremony to withdraw troops from the Preah Vihear disputed border area. The ceremony, organized by the Cambodian government, took place at the foot of the mountain on which the Preah Vihear temple is situated. The ceremony was presided over by Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence, General Tea Banh, and attended by senior figures from the Council of Ministers, the parliament, and representatives from embassies in Cambodia. Cambodian armed forces commander-in-chief, General Pol Saroeun, and his deputy commanders and Commissioner-General of the Cambodian national police, General Neth Savoeun, were also present at the event.

In a so-called “stage one troop redeployment”, nearly 500 Cambodian soldiers were withdrawn from the area and replaced by more than 300 policemen and guards in a move that the government suggested complies with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) order on 18 July 2011 that both Cambodia and Thailand immediately withdraw troops from the Provisional Demilitarized Zone (PDZ).

On the other side of the border, Thai media reported that a number of Thai soldiers were also pulled back from the contested border area and replaced by border patrol police though the exact number was not declared. The troop redeployment from the PDZ was made after a meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on the sideline of US-ASEAN Business Forum in Siem Reap on Friday 13 July 2012.

The ceremony was also organized to mark the four-year anniversary (2008-2012) of the listing of Preah Vihear temple as a world heritage site and to celebrate Cambodia as a host country for UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meeting next year.

At the ceremony, ASEAN and UNESCO flags were displayed along with the Cambodian flag. People from Preah Vihear province wore white T-shirts. On the front side of the shirts was the message ‘Heritage for Humanity’ and on the back side was ‘ICJ for peace and development’.

So what kind of image did the Cambodian government intend to project?

I think the government intended to convey three messages: it complies with the ICJ’s decision; it supports ASEAN community; and it is pro-peace. The government wanted to project its good image to both local and international communities.

ASEAN and UNESCO flags being displayed along with Cambodian flag at the ceremony

Looking from a political perspectives, the Cambodian government’s move to pull out troops from the contested border area could be seen as its preparation for the big events to take place in 2013, namely the national election, its hosting of the 37th UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting, and the ICJ’s verdict over the disputed piece of land adjacent to the Preah Vihear temple.

In my opinion, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen does not see much political benefit in keeping the border issue with Thailand tense. There are other positive aspects that the party can easily capitalize on to win the general election next year. In addition to its traditionally strong election campaign messages of the CPP as the peace builder and peace keeper for Cambodia and the driver of the country’s development and economic growth, the ruling party has now, through its controlled media, projected the image of its leadership in the regional and international arena.

Cambodia is Chairman of ASEAN this year and has so far hosted important meetings in Phnom Penh. The ASEAN Summit, ASEAN Plus Three, and the East Asian Summit scheduled to take place in November this year will be attended by world leaders including US President Barack Obama.

Although Cambodia has been criticized for its failure to issue the joint communiqué at the conclusion of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting concerning the controversial and sensitive issue of the South China Sea dispute, this is an issue only among people in the media, diplomats, and political observers, while the large majority of ordinary Cambodians know only about Cambodia’s role as chair of ASEAN and its hosting of important meetings.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has also initiated the idea of recruiting more than one thousand young men and women to take voluntary missions to help demarcate land and fill land ownership forms for people in the provinces. The activities of this so-called Samdech Decho Hun Sen’s Voluntary Youth are extensively covered everyday by the state-controlled media. Land disputes are common and highly contentious in Cambodia. The initiative by the prime minister to launch this campaign will definitely help his party in its campaign for next year’s national election.

The images of Cambodia as ASEAN chair and the activities of Hun Sen’s voluntary youth are enough to guarantee the CPP’s victory in next year’s general election.

Nevertheless, the government has shaped public opinion of its dealing with troop withdrawal to portray it as a win-win strategy. When it deployed troops to the disputed border area, it was a victory for Cambodia because the soldiers could safeguard the country’s territorial sovereignty against Thailand’s aggression. Now that the the soldiers are being withdrawn, it is also Cambodia’s victory because the government’s goals have been achieved.

Cambodia’s request to the ICJ to interpret its 1962 judgment is now being reviewed by the international court and the verdict will be issued in late 2013. Also, Cambodia’s bid for hosting the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in June 2013 has been approved.

The government has made frequent announcement on television about Cambodia’s hosting of the meeting next year, claiming that it proves that the international community has trust and confidence in Cambodia. The government suggested that the World Heritage Committee’s approval of Cambodia to host the meeting did not occur by accident. It came from the effort that the government delegates put in lobbying the members of the World Heritage Committee.

The image of troop withdrawal to reduce border tension fits very well with the larger pictures of Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship, the World Heritage Committee meeting, the general election, and the ICJ verdict.

The Preah Vihear dispute is arguably the most sensitive issue in the modern history of relations between Cambodia and Thailand, but genuine peace between the neighbors is possible if leaders and political groups in both countries have the political will to prevent domestic politics from hijacking the good neighborly tie. The stage one troop withdrawal by both countries is a positive sign toward healing the rift.

However, it is not enough.

Leaders in both countries need to make it clear to their respective people that they will strictly honour the ICJ judgement due to be released next year whatever the outcome will be. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen already declared in his public address after Cambodia had submitted its request to the ICJ that his government would respect the court’s verdict.