The relationship between Thailand and Cambodia continues to deteriorate. The two countries’ militaries have been trading blows since February, when a dispute over a temple erupted in armed clashes. A cease fire maintained the peace for a couple of months, but it collapsed last week. The trigger is a disputed border, but the real cause is long-standing enmity that politicians on both sides are exploiting for domestic purposes. The crisis is a test not only of the political maturity of the two countries’ leadership, but of the meaning and relevance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is forced to stand idly by as two of its members make a mockery of the group’s commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes.

The kingdoms of Thailand and Cambodia, two proud civilizations with long and rich histories, have contested for regional pre-eminence for centuries. One source of tension is the 900-year old Preah Vihear temple, which the International Court of Justice decided in 1962 was located on Cambodian territory, a ruling that inflamed nationalists in Thailand. In 2008, the United Nations declared the temple to be a World Heritage Site, a ruling that increased tensions between the two nations. While ownership of the temple may have been decided – legally at least – a 14.6-sq.-km patch of land surrounding it is still contested.

Given the sensitivity of the site, periodic clashes there are not unusual. There was fighting when Cambodia asked the U.N. to designate the temple a World Heritage Site but it was limited. This February, for reasons that are still unclear, conflict broke out for several days and ran through several cease fires. By the time the fighting stopped, 11 troops had been killed, dozens more wounded and 30,000 people had been displaced.

That cease fire held until last week, when troops again exchanged fire, this time at a temple complex some 150 km west of Preah Vihear. Again, the precise cause is unknown. Both sides claim the other violated its territory or shot at its troops. By Sunday, the exchange of artillery fire had resulted in 12 deaths, injuries to dozens more and the evacuation of thousands of civilians.

Cambodia has accused Thailand of using spy planes, heavy artillery, cluster munitions and chemical weapons. Thai officials “categorically deny” all the charges. (The Thais were also accused of using cluster munitions – which are banned by over 100 nations – in the February clashes. The Thai government eventually conceded that they had used such munitions, but neither it nor the Cambodian government has banned their use.)

After the February incidents, the two governments agreed to allow unarmed military observers from Indonesia to be posted along their disputed border. That arrangement has not been put in place, primarily because Thailand has insisted that the issue should be resolved bilaterally. After last week’s clashes, Bangkok apparently reversed course and agreed to the stationing of observers, but not in the disputed area around Preah Vihear.

Thailand argues that bilateral mechanisms exist to solve the problem and accuses Cambodia of trying to internationalize the dispute to shift the negotiation dynamics. There is probably some truth to that. But the real driving force behind the clashes is the intense nationalism in both countries. The Cambodian government is eager to find a rallying point for its people and Thailand’s readiness to usurp a part of Khmer patrimony is as fat a target as Prime Minister Hun Sen can hope for.

Meanwhile in Bangkok, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva assumed office on the wave of protests against allies of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who, while popular among Thailand’s poor and disenfranchised, is despised by the country’s elites. A key charge against the pro-Thaksin forces was their acquiescence to the designation of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site. That was considered a betrayal of Thai sovereignty and subsequent governments had to repudiate the move.

Mr. Abhisit is anticipating national elections this summer to claim a mandate. And Mr. Hun Sen has upped the ante by hiring Mr. Thaksin as his own economic advisor, adding insult to injury. Compromise, always difficult, looks virtually impossible for now.

There is more at stake here than the political fortunes of two leaders. ASEAN too is being tested. For all its faults, the regional organization has always been able to assert that it has maintained the peace in Southeast Asia. The ASEAN way may be inefficient, but it has built confidence and prevented war among its members. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa – who is on the point since Jakarta currently occupies the chair of ASEAN – says, “The use of force has no place in relations among ASEAN member countries.” Yet, that is exactly what is happening between Thailand and Cambodia.

If ASEAN cannot prevent two member states – one of which was a founding member – from violating one of its fundamental principles, then the organization is more bankrupt than any had assumed. ASEAN must demand more from its members and reassert its legitimacy. Failure to resolve this dispute peacefully bodes ill for Thailand, Cambodia and ASEAN when the two countries dispute nearly 27,000 sq. km of water in the Gulf of Thailand along with other parts of their shared land border.

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