Hun Sen

It has been about three years since the end of violent border clashes between Cambodia and Thailand and nearly a year since the International Court of Justice ruled on parts of their territorial dispute. That quiet does not mean the issues between the two countries have been resolved. On the surface the dispute is over the border between the two countries but in the past it has been as much about nationalism and politics.

Both countries have built themselves on the basis of a strong ethno-nationalist identity with deep historical roots, including successful and unsuccessful wars against their neighbors. In the modern era such clashes provide both regimes a potential outlet for nationalist fervor and emotion, which otherwise could have destructive domestic results for their governments. The dispute is also about politics across borders – some observers have tied the end of hostilities in 2011 to the election of Yingluck Shinawatra, keyed by her brother’s close relationship with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen. Today brewing conditions on both sides of the border make the resumption of active hostilities a real possibility.

Of course in Thailand the yellow-shirt opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra again hold power. So far Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s attempts at rebuilding domestic tranquility have had mixed results at best as his government pursues the creation of a democratic system that will somehow prevent their opponents from ever re-gaining power. They are continuing some of the populist policies that led them to overthrow Yingluck’s government, such as her economically dubious rice buying scheme. They are also relying on harsh controls to prevent opposition, including bans on expressions of dissent, re-emphasizing nationalism, and re-writing history books to remove their opponent’s name. The government’s ability to sustain itself on this path is far from certain.

Hun Sen is also not as secure in his seat of power as he has been in the past, following the contested outcome of the 2013 Cambodian elections. He secured his continued hold on power through a combination of force and compromise, repressing protests while promising concessions on electoral and land reforms. In the past he has shown clear willingness to use any necessary means to secure and hold power and there is no reason to suspect that has changed. His opponents have attempted outflank him in rousing spirits against Vietnam, a slightly problematic area for him given his long ago cooperation with Hanoi. Thailand remains an important source of Cambodia’s imports and an outlet for migrant workers, but the same was true during the last outbreak of violence. With his preferred partners, the Shinawatras, out of power Thailand again holds promise as a whipping boy for Hun Sen.

The leaders in both countries could use a rallying point for their populations and their needs seem more likely to grow than shrink in the near future. It would be dangerous for the region if either were to take aggressive actions near the disputed territory, but based on past behavior neither is above doing so. As ASEAN struggles to find common ground over the disputes between some members and China, and seeks to reach the vision of an ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, the last thing the other members of the grouping need is renewed hostilities between Cambodia and Thailand. Hopefully the other ASEAN states are reminding the governments of Thailand and Cambodia that renewed violence would not be welcome.

Doug Krugman recently completed three years assigned to the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) and is now a student at the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, APCSS, United States government, United States Marine Corps or Marine Corps University.