Thai-Cambodian conflict a challenge to the bloc's credibility, cohesiveness
WHEN Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong fly to New York next Monday for talks - prompted by Asean chair Indonesia - the credibility of the 10-nation regional grouping as a cohesive bloc will be at stake.
The artillery barrages that were exchanged by Thai and Cambodian troops over disputed land around an ancient Hindu temple legally awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 World Court ruling showed how the baggage of history has yet to be shrugged off in some parts of the region.
At issue is not just territory - which has changed hands several times down the ages - but ownership of the cultural roots of the region.
Khmer culture predates Siamese culture, which has many Khmer elements woven into it.
But both Khmer and Siamese kingdoms have waged war over the generations. Even the fabled Angkor Wat was once occupied by the Siamese.
Cambodians consider the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, a shrine to the Hindu god Shiva, part of their identity. From flags to currency notes to billboards, it has and still figures in the symbolism of the Cambodian state.
But the border war is rendered even more complex by current circumstances.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, is Asean's longest-serving leader and by any measure a 'strongman' ruler.
His favourite son is a West Point graduate who commands the troops in the area where the border clashes, which began last week, took place.
Mr Hun Sen rarely misses an opportunity to make rousing speeches appealing to Khmer nationalism. His needling of Cambodia's more economically successful neighbour taps into a deep vein of local resentment against Thailand's economic and cultural domination of its immediate region.
He has been criticised by the opposition Sam Rainsy party for being soft on border disputes with Vietnam; getting tough with Thailand counters this and strengthens his image. The grandstanding also takes place with an eye towards a general election next year.
On the Thai side, ultranationalists began using the issue of the temple and the disputed land to discredit the former Thaksin Shinawatra government's loyalist successor, the People Power Party, in 2008 for making alleged concessions to Cambodia.
Now, the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, which they initially supported, is being attacked on the same grounds. The object, analysts say, is largely domestic political mileage ahead of a general election that is likely this summer.
Another factor is the army. Given that the military is a key player and power broker in Thailand, a widespread theory persists among analysts and the Thai media that hawkish generals want to whip up nationalism and create a crisis which would be an excuse to postpone an election because they doubt the ruling Democrat Party-led coalition will win it. The army, some analysts say, wants to ensure the opposition does not take power because it fears accountability for its role in political violence in 2009 and last year.
Another scenario has it preparing the ground for an outright military takeover, citing a national emergency. If any of these came into play, the army would be supported by right-wing nationalists and opportunistic camp followers. In the Thai context, prime ministers have to accommodate the army, because they need its support to stay in power.
But there is by no means universal support in Thailand for a war. Most media commentators and influential academics have warned of the dangers of an unnecessary war which would be greatly damaging to both countries.
Villagers on the border do not want a war because it would ruin their lives and livelihood. Even ultranationalist groups have been unable to muster very large numbers on the streets of Bangkok.
While Thailand's leadership has been making appropriate noises about defending national sovereignty, it has also insisted that two bilateral joint committees to address border disputes will remain in place and continue to meet.
And in Cambodia, despite Mr Hun Sen's fiery rhetoric, the leadership knows a war with Thailand would be disastrous, hence the call for UN intervention.
For Asean, the border war is a challenge to the regional bloc's ambitions and credibility at a time when it is beginning to consolidate its position and wield real influence on the global stage.
Asean's founding fathers knew well that the region's old rivalries ran deep. The premise was that shared economic interests would eventually erase old animosities and cement new, forward-looking alliances.
The strategy worked to a significant degree: Asean countries have by and large made impressive strides in human and economic development since the regional bloc was born of the debris of post-colonial and Cold War conflict.
There is more optimism in the region now than ever before, and Asean attracts big and emerging powers to its annual table - the United States, China and India.
In choosing the path of armed conflict - not just in a skirmish, but with heavy artillery and rockets to reach deep inside each others' countries - both Thailand and Cambodia not only delivered a shock to the Asean system, but were also in violation of the grouping's Charter, which requests member states to resolve conflicts through peaceful negotiations.
Yet, the Charter has little teeth, and the so-called 'Asean way' of quiet networking and diplomacy remains the preferred route to compromise and consensus - if it takes place in time to ward off a crisis.
There is some optimism following Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's recent shuttle diplomacy, and talks in New York next week.
But it will remain a challenge for both countries to withstand domestic constituencies that seek short-term political mileage from conflict, and for their leaders and generals to refrain from grandstanding that fans old nationalist embers into flames, unleashing processes they cannot control.