On 51st ICJ Anniversary, Preah Vihear Less Politically Divisive

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON – On the 51st anniversary of the ICJ’s ruling of June 15, 1962, I ask where is the Preah Vihear temple dispute today?

The ancient Hindu-Khmer* temple of Preah Vihear is once again ‘on trial’ at the International Court of Justice earlier this year. Exactly two month before the 51st anniversary of its 1962 ruling, the court held another hearing right around Khmer/Thai new year on the request for reinterpretation of that ruling. The request was made by Cambodia, following a series of border conflicts with Thailand between 2008 and 2011 subsequent to the enlisting of Preah Vihear temple as world heritage site.

The court is expected to make a landmark ruling in October. The big question is what the ruling will be. But an even bigger question is how the two countries – especially Thailand and the Thai military – will react to the ruling.

The good news is that – at least on the Cambodian side – local politics appear to be out of the picture, at least until the October ruling. Although some domestic dynamics in both countries are similar to the period leading up to Cambodia’s 2008 national elections, the differences are significant, especially the current Thai government’s much more favorable attitude towards Cambodia and Mr. Hun Sen. This has especially manifested itself in Thailand’s recent denial of entry to opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Even though the ICJ hearing occured just over three months before Cambodia’s national elections on July 28 and the pending case extending over into the post-election period, the hearing and 51st anniversary has officially been kept low, perhaps also out of the need to show impartiality during the high-profile World Heritage Committee gathering starting tomorrow.

A final factor is that unlike in 2008, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has by now established itself as a legitimate protector of the country’s sovereignty, a legitimacy it has lacked and some still see as lacking. And according to analyst Chheang Vannarith, the disappearance of Preah Vihear in election politics is also due to Cambodia’s general confidence after the ICJ’s April hearing on a generally unifying issue for Cambodians. Here’s my Skype interview with him, in Khmer.

Back in the last election in 2008, the Preah Vihear dispute eventually became somewhat intertwined with pre-election politics in Cambodia and helped set a string of events that eventually let to Thai-Cambodia border skirmishes. This was how I viewed the situation back in November 2009, after the first round of border clashes between the two countries. In hindsight, however, the Preah Vihear dispute then was ironically also the most unifying issues in country in decades. It unified Cambodians across political lines both inside and outside the country.

Preah Vihear concert in 2008: A rare large-scale re-introduction of formerly banned nationalistic song “Pongsavadar Khmer” or “Khmer Chronicle”, something previously unthought of by the CPP.

The bad news, however, according to the same observer, is that there is no foreseeable ‘good’ or ‘win-win’ scenarios yet following the ICJ ruling in October, making things less predictable.

Since Preah Vihear is likely not a factor this year’s Cambodian politics, where attention has shifted east, the likely scenario in the run-up to the ruling remains one of calm like since current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to power. Until the ICJ ruling, and thereafter, it seems the key player and determinant in the dispute will be the Thai military.

*I use the term “Hindu-Khmer” temple rather than “Hindu temple” or “Khmer temple” to more accurately describe the nature of the ancient temples build by the Khmer Empire. It appears that the term “Hindu temple” is mostly used in Thailand to maximize the religious nature of it and ignoring the Khmer identity of the temple. In Cambodia, the temples -including Angkor Wat – are simply known as “Khmer temple” to refer to its cultural heritage, where Hinduism is already understood as a part of Khmer identity.

Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly suggests that this year was the 50th anniversary rather than 51st anniversary.

Analyst Worries Democracy May Be Sidelined for Asean ‘Security’

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh's Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, April 13, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – The adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh last year marked a major milestone for advocates of Asean democracy. But a prominent Southeast Asian security expert says that while democracy is important for security in Southeast Asia, getting the region’s democracy agenda back on track remains uncertain in the near term.

The recent opening up of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has made some observers see promise of greater democracy in Southeast Asia. But some worry that despite this attention, traditional security issues, like the South China Sea, might sideline the region’s democratization agenda in coming years.

Rizal Sukma, executive director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, told an audience at the East West Center in Washington last week that the current global geopolitical climate is starting to affect how Southeast Asian countries prioritize their foreign policies.

Countries in the region are having to choose between their core values and their practical interests, he said. “My fear is that most of us will choose interest, rather than values,” he said. “And then we can say goodbye to democracy as the agenda of regional cooperation in Southeast Asia.”

Human rights and democracy were founding principles of Asean, a group that puts together democracies, constitutional monarchies and communist governments. But Indonesia, the bloc’s largest member, has been pushing for greater democratic reform since 2003.

Burma’s reforms in the democratization process have stirred some signs of optimism, but Sukma said democracy should be viewed as important regionally, as well. And that will require changes in a lot of countries.

“In a democracy, you have to open up and cannot withhold information anymore,” he said. “So it provides a lot of opportunities to actually understand each other better.”

But democracy is a tough agenda item for Asean countries, who typically have non-interference policies. It took years to adopt a Human Rights Declaration, one that rights groups have criticized as below international standards.

Katherine Southwick, an international law consultant based in Southeast Asia, told VOA Khmer via Skype that the Asean declaration is an evolving document, and while revision of some provisions will be helpful, its value will ultimately depend on implementation.

That will depend on citizens and governments, “and what kinds of measures they actually take when they are confronted with human rights abuses,” she said.

Sukma told VOA Khmer that the declaration allows governments to argue “cultural relativism” to trump universal rights norms. The declaration was a disappointment to Indonesia, the only Southeast Asian country listed as “free” by the US-based watchdog Freedom House, he said.

And though officially Indonesia welcomed the declaration at its signing in Phnom Penh last November, the country is walking a fine line between promoting a regional democratic agenda and alienating countries that might see its work as patronizing, he said.

Burma was the first Asean country to reach out directly to Indonesia for help in its democratization process, he said. Burma will now chair Asean in 2014, symbolizing the region’s struggle to put democracy as a pillar of regional security. But other issues are pressing, as well.

That kind of tension was brought to light at the November summit in Phnom Penh last year. The summit was dominated by policy arguments of the South China Sea, where Asean members have overlapping claims with China. Discussion on the rights declaration was overshadowed by that contentious issue.

Still, Sukma said Burma’s chairmanship will put democratization higher on the agenda, as the country seeks to trumpet this achievement.

Asean Summit Seen as Opportunity for a Balanced Cambodian Foreign Policy

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, November 16, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – Cambodia will host the Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh next week, during which major regional security topics will be discussed amid visits by world leaders, including the US president. Ernie Bower, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, recently spoke with VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat. Bower says the international attention that comes from the summits presents an opportunity for Prime Minister Hun Sen to demonstrate that his country has a balanced foreign policy, and will allow Cambodia to address criticism over failed Asean meetings in July and to improve its partnership with the US.

Editor’s Note: This interview was also broadcast on Cambodian News Channel (CNC) TV before the 21th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh.

July’s Failure Looms as Cambodia Prepares for Major Regional Summits

ASEAN countries' foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

ASEAN countries’ foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, November 14, 2012

WASHINGTON – As Cambodia prepares to host a series of top-level meetings in Phnom Penh next week, questions remain over how it will approach major issues such as the South China Sea.

Cambodia was heavily criticized for its behavior in an Asean meeting in July that ended in a deadlock among Southeast Asian ministers over language about the South China Sea, which sees overlapping claims among several Asean states and China. Cambodia was seen as furthering the interests of China, a major donor and investor in the country, ahead of those of regional partners.

Analysts now say next week’s meeting will be a test of whether Cambodia will continue to act counter to the interests of Asean.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told VOA Khmer that Asean leaders need to have “one voice” in their discussions with China, even if the bloc doesn’t have a conflict resolution mechanism yet for disputes over the sea.

“We are only a mechanism to help compromise and to prevent escalation of the conflict,” he said.

That means any code of conduct agreed upon within Asean will not live up to the expectations of some.

Nevertheless, Asean leaders need to have a thorough discussion ahead of the Asean summit next week to understand the positions of each of its members ahead of talks with China.

“I think Cambodia has learned its lesson as is currently working its diplomatic skills to facilitate in-depth discussions between countries in the region on the issue,” he said.

Chheang Vannarith and other analysts doubt that next week’s meetings will bring about a code of conduct on the South China Sea.

Ernie Bower, who heads the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told VOA Khmer that China overplayed its hand by pushing Cambodia in July.

“They put a lot of pressure on Cambodia,” he said.

This caused Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to break with tradition, he said.

As a result, for the first time in decades, Asean ministers were unable to draft a joint statement announcing the results of the meeting. This was due to a disagreement over language about the South China Sea, officials said at the time. The two countries most affected were the Philippines and Vietnam, who have come close to conflict with China over the sea and are the two most outspoken claimants to its waterways, islands and resources.

“I think what we can expect in November is a more moderate position by China,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll push Cambodia as hard, and I think the Chinese have realized that their very aggressive approach to Asean, trying to manipulate Cambodia to pull issues like South China Sea out of the discussion, is not going to be useful.”

Bower called China’s approach to the issue in July “outdated.” “That’s not the way the China-Asean relationship would prosper,” he said. “I think there probably is recognition among the Chinese that talking about the South China Sea is something that has to be done at the East Asia Summit. If the East Asia Summit won’t talk about the most important security issues that involve the countries that are involved of the day, then it’s not going to be relevant, it’s not going to be a sustained leadership forum with high value.”

Even so, there is unlikely to be a final code of conduct for the sea that all parties will agree on by November, he said. China is in the midst of selecting new leadership. “So you’ll have a new Chinese leader coming to Cambodia, freshly minted,” he said. “And I think the Chinese will probably try to sort of do no harm.”

However, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, told the Voice of America in Bangkok that China might also go the other way. The election of a new leader in China, part a major shift in China’s next generation of communist leaders, could mean that China will want to appear strong at the East Asia Summit and other meetings, he said.

“So some drama is in store, because China will apply a lot of pressure” on other countries, he said. “Remember that China has some domestic concerns now; they’re going through a leadership transition. It’s not a good time for the Chinese leadership to appear weak.”

Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the South China Sea will likely be discussed at meetings next week, though it is unclear how much. “Previously, Asean leaders have raised this issue in this kind of agenda setting,” he told VOA Khmer.

He downplayed the importance of the failed meetings in July.

“Within the framework of Asean, it is a tradition that we can agree to disagree on various issues,” he said. “We’ve seen that as chair, Cambodia has tried to solve many challenges, especially sensitive issues.” Some sensitive topics cannot be put into joint statements, he said. “Because generally if we cannot agree on something, we cannot include it in a joint document.”

The upcoming summit will include more mutual understanding amid Asean states, he said. “Whether you want it or not, Asean will have central unity and solidarity and will approach every issue on the basis of friendship and cooperation.”