Thai-Cambodia spat trumps ASEAN talks with big powers

July 23, 2008 at 2:47 am Leave a comment

Tue Jul 22, 2008 1:41pm IST

By Bill Tarrant

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A smouldering border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia grabbed the limelight on Tuesday as Southeast Asian nations began meetings with Asia-Pacific powers on economic and security issues.

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Foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations were meeting with their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea on Tuesday for talks that would certainly include regional diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear programme.

But with Thailand and Cambodia in a military showdown over an 11th-century temple on their border claimed by both nations, ASEAN has been distracted from big power diplomacy by one of the periodic intramural spats that feeds skepticism about the 41-year-old group’s ambitions to become a coherent political and economic bloc.

Ministers from Thailand and Cambodia briefed their ASEAN counterparts at a working lunch on Tuesday about the situation after both sides sent hundreds of soldiers and heavy artillery to the border in recent days.

Cambodia wants ASEAN to get involved but Thailand does not want to internationalise the dispute, diplomats said afterward.

“The lunch was very, very unofficial, very informal, talking about many, many issues,” ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters.

“Just expressing some views on issues that would affect the region, that would affect ASEAN, that would have some implications on the image and credibility of ASEAN.”

The dispute is testing ASEAN’s unity while it is in the midst of ratifying a charter that would turn the 41-year-old grouping into an EU-style, rules-based organisation.

SLAP IN FACE

“The border engagement is not only relevant in terms of the problem that we see between the two states, but also it could be a test to ASEAN,” said Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim. “For the first time now, two of its members are facing what we call ‘a border predicament'”.

The Jakarta Post in an editorial on Tuesday said the two countries “have slapped ASEAN right in its face at a critical time” when the group is holding meetings with Asia-Pacific powers, and in the midst of ratifying its charter.

The fracas did manage to shove Myanmar out of the spotlight it usually occupies with great uneasiness at ASEAN meetings.

They began this time with a rare ray of optimism on Sunday from the country’s junta, which seemed to indicate detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be freed in about six months.

But Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win said his remarks had been misunderstood and Suu Kyi would stay in detention until at least May of 2009.

That clarification came as ASEAN urged Myanmar to “take bolder steps” towards a peaceful transition to democracy and to release all political detainees, including Suu Kyi.

That was the first time ASEAN had ever specifically mentioned Suu Kyi in one of its communiques, diplomats said.

ASEAN has, however, led the effort to coordinate international aid to help victims of Cyclone Nargis, which tore through Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta in May and left 138,000 killed or missing.

On Monday, ASEAN released a report saying survivors need at least $1 billion over the next three years after the cyclone caused some $4 billion in damage.

North Korea will move into the frame when ASEAN holds talks on Tuesday with China, Japan and South Korea on regional security and trade issues.

North Korean nuclear diplomacy will take centre stage on Wednesday when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun along with the foreign ministers from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — who together make up the “six party” nuclear talks.

It will be the first time the six foreign ministers have met as a group since the six party talks began five years ago.

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Entry filed under: Preah Vihear Issue. Tags: .

Cambodia warns Thai ‘aggression’ threatening region UN Security Council to discuss Thai-Cambodia dispute: ambassador

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