The Yingluck Shinawatra administration's stance on possible rulings on the Preah Vihear dispute by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has triggered anti-government sentiment much sooner than expected.
The government has said Thailand, as a member of the international community, needs to comply with whatever decision is reached by the ICJ, also known as the World Court, in the Hague later this year.
Cambodia, which petitioned the court to reinterpret its 1962 ruling which awarded it ownership of the Preah Vihear temple, but did not rule on the land surrounding the site, will present an oral statement to the judges on April 15. Thailand will present its case on April 19. The court is likely to give its ruling in October or November.
During a meeting on Jan 2, Ms Yingluck made it clear she wanted the Foreign Ministry and the armed forces to adopt a similar position in handling the Preah Vihear matter. She is to set up a joint working group and a PR team _ a move some observers said aims at preparing the Thai public to accept an unfavourable outcome from the World Court.
This has prompted the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the Thai Patriots Network to threaten to stage a mass rally to demand the Yingluck government reject World Court's jurisdiction.
The PAD has resorted to its old tactics _ alleging the government will cut a deal over the Preah Vihear temple in exchange for oil and gas benefits in the Gulf of Thailand, and highlighting the close relationship between ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Cambodian leader Hun Sen.
The PAD's move comes as no surprise to the government. It's just that it comes rather early given that the oral hearing is scheduled for April while the ruling is later in the year. The PAD has re-ignited nationalism by focusing on the prospect of Thailand losing the disputed 4.6 sq km area around the temple to Cambodia.
However, army analysts believe there are two possible rulings by the ICJ.
The first is awarding the area surrounding the temple to Cambodia while maintaining its demilitarisation. That means both sides must withdraw troops and instead deploy border patrol police.
The second involves rejecting Cambodia's claim over the surrounding area, while insisting both sides withdraw troops and deploy border patrol police.
Of the two, the army regards the second as the most acceptable and the best option that will enable both sides to avoid armed conflict.
Defence Minister ACM Sukumpol Suwanatat has expressed optimism that the ICJ would not issue a ruling that will end in war between the two nations.
"This is a sensitive issue. All Thais think the same that we do not want to lose anything further. I have confidence that the ruling will be the same as the earlier one and that both sides will benefit. We should not be too pessimistic," he said.
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha is also showing a softer approach while there were some positive signs at the last Joint Working Group meeting, especially the agreement to jointly clear landmines from the disputed area by April.
"We have to do everything to bring peace. We have to convince the World Court that the two neighbours can solve the problem together. No one want to fight, no one want to resort to arms," said the army chief.
He insisted there is no conflict between the army and the government or the Foreign Ministry.
Army sources said that eventually, the army will comply with the ICJ ruling if no more land is awarded to Cambodia.
"We will withdraw infantrymen and army rangers from the base we had in the 4.6 sq km disputed area and replace them with armed BPP [Border Patrol Police] ... Cambodia will do the same," one source said.
The co-existence of BPP from both sides will significantly reduce border tensions.
If bilateral ties are good, both sides can jointly develop the area to promote tourism. That will bring income to people living on both sides of the border so there will be no need to worry about war.
On top of that, the army wants to solve the border conflicts within a bilateral framework. It insists it does not want observers from a third country as they are not necessary, especially if relations are improving.
But, the opposition from the PAD and the Thai Patriots Network has reignited border tensions, triggering fears of conflict, and Cambodia reinforcing its troops. Gen Prayuth has tried to allay these fears.
"It's normal that Cambodia has to stand ready. We also have a plan but this does not involve fighting," he said.
Usually, the Suranari forces of the 2nd Army Region conduct exercises during the months of January to March and that can create the impression that the army is preparing an aggressive move. But this is not the case as the exercises do not take place near the border. Cambodia also holds similar drills around the same time.
While some may interpret the drill as preparation for an "unexpected situation," there will be no fighting as long as the Pheu Thai Party is in power, and while the army and the government sing the same tune.
Looking on the bright side, the military's stance, and renewed border tension may put pressure on the World Court to deliver a ruling that will lead to peaceful coexistence, not a war that leading to needless loss of life on both sides.
Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.
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- Writer: Wassana Nanuam