Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Thai military coup and Vietnam-China conflict have complicated Cambodian politics

Image www.voacambodia.com
By Khmer Wathanakam

A recent bloodless military coup in Thailand which had completely removed both the government from the power and anti-government protests from the streets has sent a mixed message for Cambodia which has experienced similar crisis though less severe in term of violent confrontations when Thailand lost at least 28 lives and Cambodia lost seven lives.  Hun Sen who has personally built strong friendship with Thacksin's clan and its red shirt party used to deeply interfere in Thai politics when he had granted Thacksin  refuge and an economic adviser title in Cambodia, disregarding ASEAN's principle which adheres to non-interference into other member states' internal affairs while Thacksin had been under arrest warrant in Thailand.  Now Hun Sen seems change his position when rumor surfaces that Thacksin and his red shirt supporters had planned to create Thai exile government to resist the military coup, using Cambodia as its base.  Hun Sen strongly rejects any possible Thai exile government on Cambodian soil and orders all troops along border to co-operate with Thai military as usual while he has echoed ASEAN's principle of non-interference on other member states' internal affairs.  Despite Thai military coup has no effect on Hun Sen's power, it apparently gives Hun Sen some morale and psychological boost since he has addicted to use power and violence to solve problems for three decades.  Hun Sen may use Thai military coup as model to secure his power in current and future crisis since there have been mild reaction from the international community to the coup.  Furthermore, the Thai military coup and an expected municipal election result have hardened Hun Sen and his party's position in negotiation with the opposition in the next round.

Recent violent protests against China's interest in Vietnam has reminded what had happened in 2003 when Hun Sen stoked anti-Thai sentiment, using unconfirmed Thai movie star's comment on Angkor Wat as belong to Thailand.  As Hun Sen's words of vengeance broadcasting on media, violent protests quickly broke out, burning down Thai embassy and business interests throughout Phnom Penh, forcing Thailand to dispatch its airplanes to rescue its citizens from Phnom Penh similar to China recently sent its ships to evacuate its citizens from Vietnam.  Such a violent protest is rarely happened or allowed in the communist country like Vietnam or authoritarian state like Cambodia.  The violent mobs against Thai interests in Cambodia orchestrated by Hun Sen had clearly coordinated by Hanoi and fully benefited Vietnam rather than Cambodia.  After the Paris Peace Accord, Thai investors and businesses flooded into Cambodia, dominating most economic sectors pushed Vietnam into disadvantageous position since Vietnam had just emerged from the communist planing economy and economic embargo from the West.  Thus, its lacked capital to invest in Cambodia.  As result, Thailand's investment dominated Cambodia throughout the 1990s, as Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan's new policy intended to changed Cambodia from a battlefield to investment field for Thailand.

When Prime Minister Thacksin asked Hun Sen to explain why they burned down Thai embassy and businesses, Hun Sen had no words to reply but to offer compensation and to punish those who had participated in his orchestrated violent protests.  Since then Thai investments have lost steam in the country, replacing with investments from South Korea, China, and Vietnam.  Now theses countries are still the largest investors in Cambodia respectively, but Vietnam still gains more priority in the first grade investment areas,  Angkor Wat, Bokor resort, and Sihanoukville beach owned by Sokimex Group, a de facto Vietnamese company.  The other sectors such as rubber plantations, Prey Land, minerals, telephone, air lines, banks, and so forth are dominated by Vietnamese companies.  In addition, to avert attention from unjust border demarcation with Vietnam, Hun Sen and Hanoi staged military confrontation with Thailand, using a 4.6 square km land dispute with Thailand to stir up armed conflict.  As later confessed from military source, Cambodian troops are the first to open fire which had drawn strong response from Thailand.  In such a situation, Cambodian people clearly saw Thailand as the aggressor while viewed Vietnam as a friendly neighbor at least in a short time.

Now Hanoi is more unlikely to allow Hun Sen creating more trouble along Cambodian-Thai border though recently Thai military has reinstalled some barbed wire in the dispute area, Cambodian military chose to use verbal protest instead of lethal confrontation that used to happen.  Because Hanoi now desperately needs to rally all available friends in the region to face with China's menace on its dispute territory that is its urgent need.  Politically, Thailand has never regained its foothold in Cambodian political affair since the French colonial time even though it re-emerged during World War II and the late 1970 when Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, forcing Thailand to support Cambodian resistance fighters and to provide shelters for Cambodian refugees.  And after the Paris Peace Accord, Thai political influence over Cambodia has dwindled till today while Vietnam has pervaded its influence deeper from day to day politically and economically.

A recent military coup against a Red Shirt government with mild reaction from the West,  gave Hun Sen a bad lesson to emulate a bad behavior of Thai military while Hun Sen has shown less sympathy with Yingluck's democratic elected government which had maintained warm relationship with him in the past.  Furthermore, Military coup in Thailand and recent expected municipal election result have hardened Hun Sen's position in negotiation with the opposition to end a long but less aggravated crisis that left Hun Sen to form an unilateral and illegitimate government to rule the country.  Despite, Japan provided technical assistance to reform a deeply flawed election system that had caused the opposition victory, the two parties are still far apart on a new election date that the opposition have strongly demanded to redo it as soon as possible in order to justify the people's will.  The 2016-17 date is more likely the most compromised date in the final deal to end the current crisis.  The opposition narrow choice is to reach a deal with the CPP in new election date before to end their parliament boycott.

With or without agreement with the opposition (CNRP), Hun Sen tries to run his illegitimate government with minimum interruption when Yingluck couldn't do it in Thailand.  Hun Sen can't even survive himself without a functioning government because he seems lose interest in other job beside his current powerful and lucrative position as premiership for life time.  Military coup in Thailand has surely bolstered Hun Sen's belief that dictatorship and seizing power by force are still tolerable at some points though in the 21st century.  Hun Sen may consider seizing power by force as if military coup in Thailand as his final reservation if the current situation has been pushed into a brinkmanship.  A military coup in Thailand and China-Vietnam conflict have created a complicated political situation in Cambodia where Vietnam has gained a strong foothold against China and Thailand's influences in Cambodia.  While Thailand's influence nearly wiped out from Cambodia, Vietnam has steadily faced China's growing influence not only along its borders but inside Cambodia too as China has become the largest foreign investor in Cambodia.

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