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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Militaries could heal battered bilateral ties

By The Nation


The positive tone of the Thai and Cambodian defence ministers hold hopes for normalisation
The General Border Committee meeting ended on Friday on a positive note as the Thai and Cambodian defence ministers agreed to work for peace. Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and his Cambodian counterpart, Tea Banh, said they would use their good offices and the armed forces to create the political space needed to bring about the comfort level for the two sides to move on.

The two governments are currently engaged in one of their bitterest diplomatic disputes in decades after Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra as his economic adviser. The move was nothing less than a slap on Bangkok's face. Hun Sen, naturally, said it was his and his country's business as to who he should appoint. He went on to cut Thailand's judicial system to pieces for charging his good friend with corruption, and taunted the Abhisit Vejjajiva government of being immature and lacking credibility and suggested that it seek legitimacy.

Nevertheless, the two defence ministers spent Friday mapping out guidelines for future cooperation between the armed forces and identified specific programmes to serve as a platform for such cooperation. The soccer game between soldiers from the two countries might well be back on schedule.

It has been pointed out that the Thai Army and their Cambodian counterparts, in spite of experiencing hiccups every now and then, have effectively turned the page and moved on from the turbulent years of the previous decades when Vietnam and Thailand turned Cambodia into a high-stakes game. Everybody had blood on their hands and no one is in the mood to dig up the past, hence the desire to leave the political baggage behind.

But let's not let the cosy feelings in Pattaya blur reality. Tea Banh may be the defence minister but we all know that the buck stops with Hun Sen. If Hun Sen does not want Tea Banh to get cuddly with the Thais, he won't.

Hun Sen may think he is smart by adopting this two-pronged strategy - a diplomatic spitting contest between the two capitals, but hugs and kisses between the two soldiers. But the problem strongmen with inflated egos have is that they invariably shoot themselves in the foot. And by that time it could be too late, as the damage could be too severe and the situation out of control.

No one can deny that there is a high degree of pretentiousness in diplomacy, as the outcome of the Pattaya General Border Committee meeting has shown. Maybe that is what is needed. Bangkok may have to pretend that its feelings were not bruised as badly as it seemed, while Cambodia could reap the benefits of the political capital sowed by Tea Banh and its armed forces. Who knows? The two countries could be hugging and kissing each other one day.

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