Preah Vihear

A new cavalry unit in Thailand's north-east: Old wish, new threat?

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 2, 2011 The Thai military is getting a new cavalry unit near the north-eastern town of Khon Kaen. The cabinet has recently approved the formation of the 3rd Cavalry Unit (essentially a division of tanks) that will cost 70bn Baht ($2.3bn). This is also a treat for privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda, who has mentioned that a third cavalry unit is a long-held one last wish, since he himself hails from the cavalry. But why is this approved now:

The new division of tanks will be a supportive unit for the Second Army Region serving along the northeastern border with Cambodia and Laos. (...)

Tanks played a key role in the fresh clash between the two neighbours when heavy weapons, including tank artillery, were involved at the border area near the Preah Vihear Temple from February 4-7.

"Cabinet approves new Army divisions", The Nation, February 2, 2011

Of course, why not use the recent clashes at the border as good opportunity to request more troops, equipment, vehicles and thus more money - not that the army isn't getting enough new toys in recent months.

But before the recent clashes at the Thai-Cambodian border the reasons for the new cavalry unit were a bit different:

The idea of setting up a 3rd Cavalry Division arose from army restructuring. The changing national security situation and perceived threats were taken into consideration when deciding on the restructuring, the supreme commander said.

"Cavalry unit for Khon Kaen eases closer", Bangkok Post, January 7, 2011

"National security situation"? I wonder what that means? Let's go back to last summer:

Apart from the 7th Division, the army also plans to set up the 3rd Cavalry Division in Khon Kaen. (...) Although sources said that the set-up of the two divisions will be developed concurrently, the 7th Infantry Division looks set to progress faster than the 3rd Cavalry as it requires a shorter time and smaller budget. The 3rd Cavalry division will require a budget of about 70 billion baht to establish, plus a timeframe of about 10 years. (...)

Politically speaking, there is every reason to believe that the 7th Division will be set up sooner than the 3rd Cavalry, especially when considering the mission of battling Thaksin Shinawatra and the red shirts, a task for which the government has no one to rely on but the military. With the 7th Division in place, the government would certainly benefit.

"Red presence forces military to establish new division", Bangkok Post, July 29, 2010

Oh, of course! Since Khon Kaen is considered to be a red shirts stronghold it does only make sense for the government and the army to try to gain more control over the region. Now what would they do?

After the crowd dispersal at Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok, the army under the Isoc recorded the names and addresses as well as ID cards of the red shirts involved before releasing them. The army then visited them at home to try to provide "healing" in its own inimitable way.

"Red presence forces military to establish new division", Bangkok Post, July 29, 2010

Guess these people are in the same annoyance level of door-to-door salesman and missionaries. Kidding aside, the plans to speed up all these military projects show the original intent of the armed forces -control of its own people. And with a military chief determined to protect the nation's highest institutions from what he sees as their enemies, one can see why. On the other hand though the military is at the moment busy with fighting at the Cambodian border for very dubious reasons.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai journalist and blogger still based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith.

The Cambodian view on border clashes with Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 18, 2011 In a comment in the English language The Phnom Penh Post, co-founder and former editor-in-chief Michael Hayes expressed his view on the most recent Thai-Cambodian border clashes and reflects on the national feeling about this issue. He writes:

At the very least I’ve never been called a spin doctor for the Cambodian government. But on the issue of the current border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding Wat Preah Vihear, I’m as angry as all Cambodians are at what we perceive as a Thai-initiated conflict of grossly unjust proportions. (...)

The nagging question that perplexes us all is why Thailand is trying to export its domestic political problems and dump them on poor Cambodia? The sentiment here is that if the red shirts and the yellow shirts want to fight it out, do so somewhere in Thailand, but don’t use Cambodia as a scapegoat.

"The view from Cambodia", by Michael Hayes, The Phnom Penh Post, February 17, 2011

We have recently blogged about the Thai national(-istic) implications of the border clashes, but just to recap: The PAD are partly to be blamed for the recent flareups in battles at the border that begun earlier this year when seven Thais were captured on Cambodian territory including a Democrat MP and Veera Somkwamkid, an infamous activist of the PAD-allied Thai Patriots Network, who has been very vocal about the border issues and known to getting into trouble several times at the very same place. That's probably why Veera and another activist have been sentenced to multiple years in jail (btw, it looks like they won't get off the hook that easy via a royal pardon).

The PAD have been protesting since late January on the streets near government house and have repeatedly viciously attacked the government and also the army, who may have some "some wounded pride among the top generals as a result of the PAD's assertions that the army has been weak" (Source: Reuters). All in all, as hinted in Hayes' comment, the border clash is a result of Thai domestic politics and ratcheted up by the ultra-nationalistic PAD. But the red shirts are absolutely on the sidelines about this issue.

Hayes continues:

In the 20 years I’ve been in Cambodia the Preah Vihear issue is without question the only one I’ve seen that has united the entire nation. Cambodian TV stations have been running fundraisers off and on with donations large and small pouring in from all quarters for two years. Even the normally truculent Sam Rainsy Party and others in the opposition are fully on board.

"The view from Cambodia", by Michael Hayes, The Phnom Penh Post, February 17, 2011

Really? In an analysis by the Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) it paints a different picture of the Cambodian opposition:

Abhisit's PAD problems are somewhat mirrored in Cambodia by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party's hounding of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The party accused Hun Sen of neglecting land controversies in the border demarcation process with Vietnam while highlighting the confrontation with Thailand.

'He is trying to avoid the border issue with Vietnam,' said Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a Phnom Penh-based non-governmental organization. (...)

Hun Sen might also be under pressure to speed up the Thai-Cambodian border conflict for budgetary reasons.

"ANALYSIS: Domestic politics muddy Thai-Cambodian border spat", DPA, February 9, 2011 (via KI-Media)

Nevertheless, Hayes' comment correctly points out the problems on the Thai side. The conflict stems from made-up false propaganda that is revived by the ultra-nationalists, partly to fight against their descend into obscurity, partly to avenge their disappointment over a government, which they thought have helped to come into existence.

This very government meanwhile, is trying stubbornly to keep this matter and its eventual resolution strictly bilateral, which is one of the reasons it has most recently refused to sign a ceasefire agreement with Cambodia, which asks observers from ASEAN to monitor to area.

Thai-Cambodian border clashes: Nationalist fever boils over

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 10, 2011 It has been nearly a week since the tense situation at the Thai-Cambodian border at the disputed ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear escalated yet again, when troops on both sides exchanged gunfire and according to independent observers, killed 11 people on both sides. Even though no shooting has been reported since Tuesday, the current calm is more than fragile.

At the same time in Bangkok, the yellow-shirted PAD have been camping and rallying at Government House since late January, demanding the government to step down and calling for a stricter handling of the Thai-Cambodian border issue. By doing so, they are yet again playing the card of ultra-nationalism to justify their cause. But unlike at their last large-scale protest in 2008, this time it appears it is the only thing left for them is to cling on.

Ever since the rally started on January 25, the PAD's narrative and thus their constructed enemies were clear: Thai prime minister Abhsit, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, Thai defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan and the Cambodians at the border - they all have to leave in some way, whether its from their post or from the area the yellow shirts claim to be Thai soil. Additionally, the endless line of contributing speakers on the PAD stage are attacking the army for not being fierce enough with the issue, essentially calling them to reclaim the area by force.

But what is the PAD's rationale behind the ultra-nationalistic sabre rattling and the constant ripping of the current Thai government? Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a diplomat-turned-academic, explains:

At a deeper level, however, the conflict reveals a power struggle between the government and the PAD, the two main bastions of royalism in domestic Thai politics. The PAD is apparently manipulating the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia to undermine the Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Relations between the two groups were not always so fractious. The Democrat Party and the PAD fought side-by-side to unseat the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and its subsequent proxies. They were both also willing to use anti-Cambodian nationalism as a rallying cry. (...)

But after it formed a government in late 2008 through a backroom deal brokered by the military, the Democrat Party gradually distanced itself from the PAD and its yellow-shirt protesters in an attempt to rebuild the government's image. PAD members were infuriated. Many believed that they helped install the Democrat Party in power but never got the credit they deserved from the Abhisit government.

"Thailand's Rising Nationalism", by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2011 (full text can be read here)

Furthermore, political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak (also known to some as 'the Quotemeister'), sees in the PAD a larger danger to the government than the red shirts:

PAD leading voices have since turned their oratory guns broadly at the powers-that-be, including the current army chief, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, and especially Mr Abhisit. (...)

Mr Sondhi (...) has been playing up his overseas Chinese roots in defiance of what he calls the 'poo dee', the blue-blooded high and mighty with privileged backgrounds. This 'poo dee' happens to coincide neatly with the red shirts' battle cry in 2009-10 against the amataya, although no realignment of these two social movements appears in the offing. But if the various colours against the 'poo dee' and the amataya are lined up at a future point, the powers-that-be should be gravely concerned.

"Where is the PAD going this time with its protests?", by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Bangkok Post, February 8, 2011

Shawn Crispin of Asia Times Online, elaborates on another angle:

Still, some have speculated that the military has swung back towards the PAD with the transition from outgoing army commander General Anupong to new chief Prayuth as a way to pressure Abhisit out of his early election plan. With the reappearance of the PAD on Bangkok's streets, this time as ultra-nationalists in defense of Thai territory, local newspapers have been awash in unexplained coup rumors. (...)

That leaves Abhisit to convince Prayuth that early polls are a better bet than backing the PAD and fomenting instability on the border.

"Bombshells and rally cries", by Shawn Crispin, Asia Times Online, February 8, 2011

The cracks between the PAD and the ruling Democrat Party were visible for some time already. The most recent scathing attacks by the yellow shirts are a more than crystal-clear sign that their bond is broken beyond repair. Apart from that, it reveals a jaded frustration among the PAD that not only in their view they were not being credited enough for bringing down three governments they saw as morally illegitimate to rule, only then to see the successor not being much better either.

The PAD's experiment at participating in politics (by 'normal' means) in form of the New Politics Party ultimately failed to break ground in the political landscape and at the local voting booths, thus leading many senior figures, including Sondhi, to leave the party and return to the streets with the PAD, as they see it as the only way to bully through their cause. Furthermore, the jaded frustration indicates their struggle against growing irrelevancy and obscurity, with the also anti-government red shirts reenergizing during their last few rallies (which were invited by one PAD activist to join them in chasing out the government).

Meanwhile, the sabre rattling by the PAD's rhetoric has reached a new low on Monday when the leader Sondhi Limthongkul has - well, read it yourself:

Yellow-shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul has urged the Thai military to seize Cambodian territory, including Angkor Wat, to barter for Preah Vihear Temple. (...)

The Thai armed forces should move forward to seize Battambang, Siem Riap, Angkor Wat and Koh Kong. And then, in negotiations which would be arbitrated by China and ASEAN, Thailand would barter them for Preah Vihear and force Cambodia to adopt the watershed for border demarcation instead of the 1:200,000 map, according to Sondhi.

He said that a diplomatic approach should not be used in a military campaign. Thailand must take the most advantageous position before any negotiation, and it is not making war with China or Vietnam, but with Cambodia which has no warships. Thailand must wield its greater military power when it has to.

‘[To] whoever says that we’re mad for war, none of us sitting here want our children to [go to war and] die, but to die for a great cause, to protect the land, is worth it.  We have 300,000 soldiers who are better equipped than Cambodian soldiers, but we lack the guts, because the senior military figures serve evil politicians.  Today, [Defence Minister] Gen Pravit Wongsuwan is not a soldier, but a politician who says anything for political gain.’

"Sondhi urges Thai military to seize Angkor Wat in exchange for Preah Vihear", Prachatai, February 9, 2011

P.S.: Nationalistic fervor is not exclusively a Thai issue here. The Cambodian blog KI-Media has an analysis about the situation across the border.

Confusion Before Saturday's Protests over Preah Vihear

Note: This post has been originally published on August 7, 2010 in series of guest blogger posts forBangkok Pundit at AsianCorrespondent.

Veera Somkwamkid, leader of the Thailand Patriot Network (photo courtesy of Eric Seldin aka @thaicam, click here to see the rest of his gallery)

As previously blogged here, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), by the time you read this, are now on the streets again to protest in front of Government House over the ongoing Preah Vihear temple issue, despite the emergency decree - or are they?

Over the course of Friday, developments changed rapidly over the legality of the protests, the venue and in the end who's actually in charge of the protests that have witnessed a fallout between different fraction of the protesters. On Friday morning this was the status quo:

PAD to gather in front of the Govt House starting 8AM tomorrow, to pressure the Govt to cancel MOU43

Tweet by @TAN_Network (TAN News Network) on Friday, Aug 06, 2010 at 05:31:44

(Note: TAN News Network is the English language sister channel of ASTV, the PAD's news outlet)

But there were still questions about the legality of the protests, since we still have a state of emergency ever since the anti-government protests some months ago. On this issue, the first conflicting reports appeared. First it was reported the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) has issued that the rally "does not violate the emergency decree". In a way the CRES would legitimize the protester's claim why they don't violate against the state of emergency. Last week, when the same protesters were rallying in front of the Bangkok bureau of UNESCO, many were claiming to "protect the country" so they would not violate the emergency decree.

But then the local police has announced the area around Government House is a no-go area. So, the police disagrees with the army. Well, that's not the first that has ever happened.

Short time later though, ASTV reported that the CRES has done a complete 180 degree turn of its earlier decision and also banned protesters from the site. Later that day, CRES has announced more details on the ruling:

CRES announces Government House 'off limits'; four roads around complex closed from 8pm, violators face two years imprisonment,Bt40,000 fine

Tweet by @MCOTEnglishnews (MCOT English News) on Friday, Aug 06, 2010 at 13:08:52

With the legality dealt there were still confusions on who actually are protesting on Saturday and where to go now since Government House was declared off-limits.

To understand who were are dealing with, it has to be noted that it is not actually the PAD (the yellow shirts) that are leading the latest Preah Vihear protests, but the Thailand Patriot Network (TPN) of Veera Somkwamkid. More on him later, but it can be already said that these two groups are affiliated with each other. Officially, the PAD (especially with Chamlong Srimuang being present all the time) are there just to support this campaign.

The more surprising (or not) was the announcement in the early evening that the PAD would move its protest somewhere else:

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Friday said that yellow shirts have agreed to move their rally from the Government House to Kilawes Stadium in Din Daeng area. The decision to move the rally site came after two-hour-and-a-half meeting between Abhisit and representatives of yellow shirts network.

"Yellow rally to move from Government House to a Din Daeng stadium PM", The Nation, August 2010

The Kilawes Stadium is located in the Thai-Japanese Sports Complex in Din Daeng, a Bangkok district that has been constantly the scene of street riots between protesters and soldiers in the past years. It was also reported that the protest has been 'downgraded' to a 'forum' to 'discuss' about this matter. Later, Bangkok Post reported that TPN also agrees to move.

But then in the evening, things have changed again!

Veera's group - Network of Preah Vihear Protectors - is determined to gather outside the PM's office in Government House today as planned. "We don't acknowledge the deal between the prime minister and the other group," Veera declared on television yesterday. [...]

PAD leaders were initially planning to rally in front of Government House to demand that Abhisit revoke the 2000 memorandum of understanding on boundary demarcation with Cambodia as well as voice their opposition to Preah Vihear's inscription as a World Heritage Site.

The Dharma Army Foundation, led by Chamlong Srimuang, later agreed to gather at the Thai-Japanese Stadium in Din Daeng today to express their views, concerns and visions with respect to Preah Vihear. Abhisit was to join the forum later in the day.

However, Veera refused to compromise and continued calling on people to join his protest.

"Defiant PAD group to go ahead with rally", The Nation, August 7, 2010

Evidently, Veera and his group have deflected from the PAD to stage their on protest at Government House, despite the area being sealed off. This apparent split between him and the PAD goes back on a series of incidents and partly some mudslinging between the two. Last year, Veera has led a group of 4,000 protesters under the PAD banner to the Thai-Cambodian border to protest about this very Preah Vihear issue that ended in riots with locals. The following day, the PAD leaders in Bangkok have denied any connections or endorsement to this group and their actions.

Then, earlier this year in June, Veera and the PAD were reported to have fallen out with each other. Matichon has obtained email exchanges between the PAD leaders with the PAD supporter's group in the US and Veera answering questions to someone. In the first mail, the PAD leaders have responded and denied to accusations made by Veera, an anti-corruption activist and until recently host of his own show on ASTV. The accusations includes being overcharged by ASTV to hold his own show, in which as a consequence Veera pulled it off the air and offered it to For Humankind TV (FMTV), that belongs to the religious buddhist sect Santi Asoke, of which PAD leader Chamlong is a devotee. I will not further go into the details of the two mails, as they go too deep to be relevant to this topic.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how and if at all the security authorities will deal with the two protests, especially the one in front of Government House. If the UNESCO protest of last week is anything to go by, it can be expected that the security forces will be far more lenient to the PAD and their affiliated groups than they were with the red shirts. Let alone the fact that prime minister Abhisit has met with these group for talks (again) shows that the what influence they still have over the government and also one must not forget that the yellow shirt leaders still have not been charged for the seizure of Government House and the Bangkok airports in 2008, as they indictments have been repeatedly postponed just as recently as last week.

We can also expect that both these groups will further push their nationalistic agenda under the pretext of 'protecting' the country. Whether the government will give in to the protesters (in a way they already did) or not, this will further complicates the already tense relations between Thailand and Cambodia.