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Preah Vihear dispute weighs on army brass
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  • Published: 24/05/2012 at 01:47 AM
  • Newspaper section: News

    The uncertain situation on the border with Cambodia could be why the army will enjoy the largest chunk of the defence budget in the next fiscal year.

    Supreme Commander Gen Tanasak Patimapakorn, left, and Royal Thai Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff Gen Worapong Sa-nganet, second right, are the two key men handling the Preah Vihear issue. WASSANA NANUAM

    The defence budget in the 2013 budget bill is set at 180 billion baht, 88.8 billion of which is earmarked for the army alone. Most of the army budget _ 87.45 billion baht _ will be used for security preparations on the front lines with all neighbours with a focus on the eastern neighbour, as both are entangled in the controversy over the Preah Vihear issue. The International Court of Justice is expected to rule on the sovereignty of disputed land around the Hindu temple early next month.

    The government, led by the Pheu Thai Party and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is on good terms with Cambodia due to amicable ties between her brother Thaksin and Cambodian leader Hun Sen, after rocky relations persisted during the previous administration.

    Part of the budget will be used to bolster cooperation, including meetings, formal and informal visits, and humanitarian and military aid for Thailand's neighbours. But a source at the Defence Ministry said other objectives of future spending will be geared towards border security preparations with the priority area having been set on the Thai-Cambodian border.

    Army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has ordered the 2nd Army Region and the Suranaree Task Force to stay alert even before the 2013 budget, now in parliament, is approved by lawmakers. The navy and air force also are ready in case border clashes resume.

    Thailand's military budget is small compared to other Southeast Asian nations.

    "Our defence budget cannot match that in many countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia or Myanmar," the source said. "Their defence budgets are around 5% of GDP. Ours in 2013 is only 1.44%, although we should get up to 2% of GDP."

    The budget includes no allocations for new arms purchases, the source said.

    Another military source on the border with Cambodia said around 2,000 troops from each side are stationed in the area near Preah Vihear with no signs of cuts. The only obvious moves are when the two countries rotate their personnel to keep soldiers fresh as they never know what will happen in the future.

    Cambodia has conducted a military exercise deep inside its frontier and Thailand undertook its Command Post Exercise with the participation of all three armed forces plus the Royal Thai Armed Forces _ formerly known as the Supreme Command _ last month and two more will be held next month and in July. "We have no intention to stage a war with anyone. We only make ourselves ready in all areas because we have no idea what our neighbours, particularly Cambodia, have in mind," a source at the Royal Thai Armed Forces said.

    Thailand has reason to worry as a troop withdrawal from the area claimed by the two countries has not taken place despite an injunction from the World Court until the ruling is handed down. That could make Phnom Penh unhappy, which might interpret the move as an attempt by the Thai Army to drag its feet on this issue.

    The army's reluctance is making the government uncomfortable and that was reflected in the Foreign Ministry's position which called on the army to strictly follow the court's temporary order for fear that failing to do so could paint a negative image of Thailand as a "bad boy", which could possibly affect the court's decision next year. But a source at the Defence Ministry said "the army will follow the court's direction because we want to be a 'good boy'. But we have procedures to do it."

    In an attempt to restore peace between the two countries, Asean has already agreed to send Indonesian observers into the disputed area.

    Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapakorn, serious about the dispute, is paying extra attention to the Joint Working Group (JWG) which is negotiating the issue with Cambodia. He selected Worapong Sa-nganet, his close friend at the Armed Forces Academics Preparatory School's Class 12, who is the Royal Thai Armed Forces' chief of staff, to be the team leader in the group. The first meeting with Cambodia was held on April 4-5 in Bangkok with Cambodian Deputy Defence Minister Nieng Pad as the counterpart to Gen Tanasak. But the maiden talks did not touch on a troop withdrawal, and the only outcome was an agreement to clear landmines in the area.

    The decision to omit the troop withdrawals may have been due to better ties between the two countries. That was reflected in Gen Tanasak's statement made at the armed forces leaders' meeting on the border issue at the air force head office last week. "Ties between Thailand and Cambodia have been improving over the past nine or 10 months. What happened before that was an accident. Now we can talk and clear up any doubts," he said.

    "If the policy of the Foreign Ministry and the government is to allow Indonesian observers to observe the situation, the armed forces will do it. But the best way is to see the two countries talk it over first," he added.

    The army's reluctance stems in part from military leaders wanting to avoid going down in history as the ones responsible for withdrawing troops or giving up land claimed by Thailand.

    Gen Tanasak has said the Indonesian observers are not needed.

    Once they are there, Thailand will have to ask for permission to enter the area and that implicitly means Thailand has lost its territory, he said.

    This issue is expected to be high on the agenda when Defence Minister ACM Sukumpol Suwanatat meets privately with Hun Sen during the Asean Defence Minister Meeting in Phnom Penh on Monday and Tuesday, although the main issue at the talks is the signing of an agreement to foster unity and security cooperation to build trust among the bloc's 10 members.

    A source said the Southeast Asian defence ministers will set up the National Centre for Peacekeeping Force, Mine and Explosive Remnants of War Clearance to showcase how serious Cambodia is in clearing landmines in the disputed area in line with the JWG's agreement last month. Gen Worapong said the second JWG meeting will be held soon in Phnom Penh after Gen Nieng Pad sets the date to turn the mine clearance deal into reality.

    Ties between the two countries are smooth due to close relations between leaders in Bangkok and Phnom Penh. But the different approaches of the Thai government and the armed forces on the troops in the area near Preah Vihear could become a big issue as military leaders have vowed to protect sovereignty over the disputed land. The issue could even become controversial in the future if the People's Alliance for Democracy moves against the attempt to withdraw soldiers from the area.


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