Political gambit being played out at The Hague
- Published: 25/04/2013 at 08:58 AM
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If you want a moral-based analysis of politics, go see a monk. You would then feel good about yourself, but still wouldn’t understand politics. If you want to understand politics, read a political analysis, but then you would hate politics.
In regard to the case of the disputed 4.6 square kilometres surrounding Phreah Vihear temple now before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the Cambodian government is playing an astute political game, the Thai government is not.
Nationalism is an emotional commitment, a sentiment found in every nation. It encourages passion, brings unity and forges the path towards national goals. Nations and empires, great and small, authoritarian and democratic, are built on the basis of nationalism.
But just as there are two sides to every coin, nationalism can also lead to racism, conflict, violence, war, destruction and atrocity. Hence, nations and empires, great and small, authoritarian and democratic, are also built on fountain of blood and pyramids of skulls.
As an emotional commitment, nationalism is not something one can use logic to tear down, but it is something one can exploit wih a little political ingenuity. However that exploitation needs to also be contained, lest it generate fountains of blood and piles of skulls.
An Cambodian boy, name not given, takes a rest near the ancient Preah Vihear temple. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
The temple and the disputed area may or may not have tangible value in terms of geopolitical-economical strategy or natural resources. But its intangible worth as a nationalistic symbol is priceless. It can blind sentiment, boil blood and fuel anger. It’s simply delicious.
Coming soon, on July 28, 2013, is the Cambodian general election. Some 9.67 million Cambodians will be eligible to cast ballots to elect the 123-seat parliament. Most importantly, incumbent Premier Hun Sen is eligible to seek a fourth term.
Since Cambodia’s transition to a democratic system, Premier Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has won 64 seats in 1998; 73 seats in 2003; and 90 seats in 2008. To hold 90 out of 123 seats is a truly absolute majority that translates into a firm grip on a nation.
It is as near to dictatorial power as a democratic system allows. But there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, who fills the 90 seats is the choice of the Cambodian people. Like Thais, the Cambodians can choose their own destiny fat the ballot box.
This choice is the foundation of democracy. People in both countries chose an absolute majority.
Regardless of the true motives and goals of a politician or political party, the big book of democracy comes with the preface, "tell the people what they want to hear". And the song of national pride is always sweet music to the ears.
Arrange whatever terms and understandings behind closed doors between the power players, but tell the people what they want to hear – just to get elected, to remain in power and to expand that power. If what you told them turns out to be a lie, blame your political opponents.
A consummate politician knows that campaigning never stops and knows never to be satisfied with current numbers. Cambodia’s strong-man leader will get even stronger, if come July 28 the CPP is handed more than the current 90 seats. At the very least, Premier Hun Sen has to make sure he does lose any seats.
Put a sore and sensitive point in the national consciousness on an international platform, directing national sentiment towards a common goal ahead of the election, with the underlying party goal of winning more seats in the national assembly, thereby strengthening the grip on the nation and further weakening the opposition.
It’s simply sound political maneuvering.
If the ICJ verdict comes after the July 28 election and in favour of Cambodia then it’s a national celebration over there. If not, then it’s not that big a deal, as the nationalist sentiment would have already been well used to CPP’s benefit ahead of the election.
If the verdict comes before the election and favours Cambodia, then it’s a national celebration and party time for the CPP in the national assembly. If the verdict goes to Thailand, well it was a political gamble where the gain-lose ratio was deemed worth the risk.
It would be a grand surprise if the CPP loses the election because of it.
Like our Cambodian counterparts, the temple and disputed area is a sore and sensitive point in the Thai national consciousness. However, it seems the Pheu Thai government has miscalculated the nationalistic symbolic value.
A masterful political game is where negotiations are made and settlements reached behind closed doors. Court cases and public hearings are mere public spectacles for the crowd to enjoy. The populace must always be fed a show.
Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, left, greets Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting in Cambodia on Sept 17, 2011. (EPA Photo)
Whatever arrangements Thaksin Shinawatra and Premier Hun Sen may or may not "allegedly" have is one thing. Painting a picture for the public is entirely something else. From the beginning, the Pheu Thai government could have or should have championed the issue. Marketed the temple and disputed area on the grounds of unity and nationalism and convinced the Thai public of its sincerity and commitment.
It would not have gained maximum success with this strategy, but the Shinawatra political machine would still have scored useful political points, rather than losing those points. Instead, the Pheu Thai government has been aloof from the beginning.
If we are to assume that the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) will go wherever the political machine points, then the temple and disputed area is neither here nor there for them.
But there is a significant portion of the population that has an emotional investment.
We may assume that a large percentage of this portion is no fan of the Shinawatra political machine to begin with. If the ICJ decides in favour of Thailand, this portion will not credit the Pheu Thai government. The applause will go to Virachai Plasai, Thai ambassador to The Hague, and his team, deservedly so.
The Democrats will also lay claim to the victory in order to win political points.
The Shinawatra political machine already suffers from a bad image in terms of "alleged" personal and business relationships between Thaksin Shinawatra and Premier Hun Sen. As well, critics judged harshly when Pheu Thai MPs and UDD leaders travelled to Cambodia to play a friendly football match with their Cambodian counterparts. On top of that, this is also the issue of Cambodia harbouring UDD fugitives following the 2010 crackdown.
Therefore, in the eyes of the nationalists, if the ICJ decides in favour of Thailand it would be a triumph, not just over Cambodia but also over the Pheu Thai government, which they view as collaborators.
On the other hand, if the ICJ decides in favour of Cambodia, then to the nationalists it simply proves the theory of the Dubai traitor and Phnom Penh being collaborators. It would heighten the passion and resolve of those who already stand against the Shinawatra political machine.
It’s a no-win situation.
Whatever the ICJ verdict may be, rest assured there will not be open warfare between the two countries – not even if the Pheu Thai government had played the nationalistic card. Saber rattling is all it will ever be, with political points to gain or lose. The nationalistic sentiment will be contained, as it is to no one’s political benefit at this point to let the furor get out of hand.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra giving bouquets of flowers and smiles to the Thai legal team is nice, but a little too late in the game. The Shinawatra political machine has shown it can play an astute political game well in the past. But over the temple and disputed area they have not played it well, not with the people who they need to score political points from, by telling them what they want to hear.
Every political point scored is a point closer to the triumphal return of Thaksin. Every political point lost has the opposite effect. Hindsight is both a blessing and a curse. History is full of lessons under the chapter "it could have been played so much better".
But there are yet many more games to play.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra presents bouquets of flowers to the Thai legal team, led by ambassador to The Hague Virachai Plasai, front right. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
About the author
- Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator