Preah Vihear Dominates Pre-Election as Cambodia Seeks UNSC ResolutionBy Luke Hunt
23 Jul 2008
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (World Politics Review) -- Cambodian authorities have called for a special U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at resolving a border dispute with Thailand as a wave of nationalism sweeps the country ahead of national elections on Sunday.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Tuesday Cambodia's ambassador in New York had sought the request, as a troop build-up around a 900-year-old temple in this country's remote northwest continues. Reports Wednesday indicated that the Security Council would discuss the issue at a Thursday meeting.
"Thai troops with artilleries and tanks are building up along the border, constituting a very serious threat not only to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cambodia but also to peace and stability in our region," Hor Namhong told a diplomatic and press briefing July 22.
Flanked by ambassadors and delegates from at least 15 countries, including the U.S., Britain, Australia and France, Hor Namhong warned Thai soldiers had positioned themselves among Khmers living on the Cambodian side of the border "thereby causing a volatile and tense situation" and security council intervention was necessary "to avoid armed confrontation."
He has also asked the 10-member regional bloc, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Cambodia and Thailand are both members, to help resolve the crisis, which has dominated the lead-up to the national poll.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) are widely expected to win Sunday's election outright on the back of a booming local economy and the rising tide of nationalism that followed UNESCO's July 7 decision to grant Preah Vihear temple on the disputed border with Thailand, a world heritage listing.
Bangkok had opposed the move and dispatched troops into the area on July 15. Phnom Penh countered, enlisting the help of retired Khmer Rouge soldiers, and a tense stand-off has ensued as politicians tried this week to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal.
But as far as Phnom Penh is concerned, international courts have long recognized Cambodian sovereignty over Preah Vihear.
Hor Namhong said Thailand had violated the international boundary between the two countries, which was established in 1908 between then Siam and France, the colonial rulers of Cambodia. This placed Preah Vihear 700 meters inside Cambodia.
That agreement was later challenged, with the International Court of Justice ruling in Cambodia's favor in 1962.
The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli said while the U.N. Security Council would consider Phnom Penh's request, it would be preferable to see a bilateral resolution to the dispute negotiated between Cambodia and Thailand.
UNESCO's heritage recognition was successfully portrayed here as a government victory in international diplomacy. Thousands have turned out at rallies, marched, prayed and descended upon the ruins at Preah Vihear and this is expected to translate into extra votes for the CPP when the ballots are cast.
A constitutional amendment that allows a party to rule outright with 51 percent of the seats in parliament was also expected to provide the CPP with a lift.
Previously an unattainable two-thirds majority was required to effectively rule, and this often resulted in messy coalitions, political horse trading and bickering.
It took Hun Sen 12 months to forge a government after the 2003 poll.
Meanwhile, allegations of corruption and a sex scandal involving royalist party Funcinpec's former leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh have further damaged any chance the royalists had of improving on their miserable showing in the last election.
The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) is expected to do well in the cities and could improve its position among rural voters after heavy campaigning in the countryside.
But the SRP is up against the CPP's well-oiled logistics and organizational structure, which blankets this country and is riding high on the Preah Vihear issue, and an economic boom not seen since the Vietnam War tipped Cambodia into decades of civil conflict in the early 1970s.
The current economic good times are being attributed mainly to 10 years of relative peace and stability under the CPP, and many observers and opposition politicians fear Hun Sen could completely obliterate their ranks at the weekend poll.
The standoff over Preah Vihear has also distracted attention from an election campaign that has shown some familiar and violent patterns from the past.
"Unfortunately, Preah Vihear has all Cambodians worried and all the media's attention is focused on Preah Vihear," said Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho. "People aren't receiving all the information they need to make an informed decision because of Preah Vihear."
She said suspected electoral-related killings, vote buying, and politically inspired arrests had been reported, adding: "How can you have free and fair elections when a journalist is killed, one who wrote articles that were against the government."
Khim Sambo, a journalist who wrote for a pro-SRP newspaper, and his son were shot dead while riding their motorbike home on a busy Phnom Penh street on July 11.
However, determining what constitutes electoral-related violence is difficult in a country where guns are common amid a notorious culture of impunity and some observers fear elections have even become a time to settle old political scores with violence.
Despite this, election monitors mostly agreed this year's campaign was a vast improvement on previous efforts, the first of which was in 1993, when a U.N.-sponsored poll designed to restore Cambodian democracy after decades of war was plagued by violence.
The suspected electoral-related death toll stands at 13, almost half the reported killings in 2003.
"The numbers have decreased but there should not be one killing," Galabru told World Politics Review. "Only when there is not one killing can an election be seen as free."
Luke Hunt is a Hong Kong-based correspondent and a frequent World Politics Review contributor.