The clash between Cambodian and Thai troops at Preah Vihear comes amid long-standing unresolved land and maritime disputes between the two countries, which could worsen under the new Thai military-led government. Any potential escalation of fighting will threaten to damage bilateral trade relations and undermine the 2013 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on Preah Vihear.
The exchange of fire on 29 September marked the first military clashes between the two countries since December 2011. Cambodian military officials who commented on the incident said a Cambodian soldier was ambushed at around 1230 hrs local time by several Thai soldiers during a routine patrol. A Thai soldier was also injured in the gun battle that ensued. An unnamed Cambodian official said that while it was unclear who fired first, the incident was unlikely to have been an accident as both parties actively share the times and routes of routine patrols in order to avoid clashes. Cambodian General Chea Thara said the situation had now normalised and labelled the injuries the result of “confusion”, an explanation employed previously by both sides during the conflict in 2010 and 2011. Both governments have refused to officially comment on the incident before bilateral discussions.
The clash coincides with the inauguration of Thailand’s transitional government led by former military junta leader and current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and has added to uncertainty over the new government’s approach to its relations with Cambodia. The two countries numerous unresolved territorial disputes including Preah Vihear and the Overlapping Claims Area in the Gulf of Thailand, which contains an estimated 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and potential oil resources. The new government’s stance on Cambodia and Preah Vihear is unclear, but there is evidence to suggest a significant shift from the previous government. For example, in early June the Thai military rounded up and deported around 10,000 Cambodian migrants at the Poipet border checkpoint, acting quickly on a long-standing issue not addressed under the previous Shinawatra regime. The deportation prompted more than 220,000 migrants to flee over the border amid fears that the military was enforcing its threat to crack down on labour laws. Since then, the Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh led a delegation to Thailand in late July to meet with General Chan-ocha, and has stated that Cambodia had “no problem” with the new military-led administration. However, relations do appear to have worsened compared to the strong ties under the former Shinawatra government.
Should the current clashes in Preah Vihear escalate, bilateral economic relations are likely to deteriorate. A spike in political tensions and armed confrontations between February and December 2011 led to a steep decline in the growth of bilateral trade between the two countries, which was valued at around USD 2.5 bn in 2010 and grew only 1 percent in 2011. After the conflict subsided and diplomatic relations improved, bilateral trade increased by more than 40 percent in 2012 to USD 4 bn. In addition, continued fighting would likely lead to travel bans and a decline in tourism to Preah Vihear, a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as nearby Ta Moan and Ta Krabey temples, which all remain disputed by Bangkok and Phnom Penh.
Any worsening violence would also signal a clear rejection of the ICJ ruling from November 2013, which at the time was positively received by both governments and heralded as a preliminary agreement to demilitarise Preah Vihear. Any breakdown of the agreement would effectively undermine the long-term prospects for a resolution to the conflict. Although the recent border clashes may be contained, any signs of escalation should be closely monitored and further clashes considered likely to worsen diplomatic relations, increase military deployments on the border and prompt restrictions on cross-border movement.