Thursday, July 3, 2008

Second Thai border conflict brewing?

Some Thais recently ignited a border dispute with Cambodia over Preah Vihear temple. A new report suggests another longstanding territorial dispute may be heating up on Thailand's Western border:
Burma has reinforced its troops in the disputed area of Doi Lang mountain, which an army source said might result from its ''misunderstanding'' over a Thai military exercise in the border area. Since last week, more Burmese soldiers with heavy weapons have been deployed to the Doi Lang area, opposite Chiang Mai's Mae Ai district. A 32-sq km area of land has sparked a row between Burma and Thailand, which have their own versions of border demarcation maps.

A source at the Third Army, which oversees northern Thailand, insisted Thai soldiers had only carried out a routine drill near the border without any move to touch on the controversial issue.

''It's probably a misunderstanding by Burma. But so far the situation remains normal,'' said the officer who asked not to be named.

Thai villagers who live near the area, viewed the Burmese move as unusual. More food supplies have been sent to the Burmese army base at Doi Lang while troops beefed up security, replacing bamboo fences with barbed wire.

There is probably more to this story. Perhaps Burma's generals calculate that international military conflict would be a good way to build national unity in the wake of the Cyclone Nagris relief fiasco. They may also reason that with Thailand having mocked internationally recognized claims made by Cambodia to land in the vicinity of its Khmer temple, Burma is better positioned to garner Cambodian support with regards to its own claims against Thailand.

The Doi Lang mountain conflict last flared up in 2003. According to an article published at the time, "The Burmese officer cited the Thai-British treaty signed on October 27, 1894 to back Burmese claims to Doi Lang. However, Thailand referred to a 1980 map to show that the mountain belonged to the Kingdom."

A 1980 map?! If that was truly the best the Thais could come up with, it would hardly be surprising should Myanmar attempt to rouse nationalist sentiments by pressing the issue.

Moreover, Thai governments of every political stripe behave as if Thailand is weak in relation to Burma. Thailand's leaders decline to point out even the most outrageous human rights abuses by the junta (at some cost to the Kingdom's international reputation). In fact, Thai leaders defend the junta at every turn. Is it inconceivable that Burma's leaders -- who command 400,000 troops -- have come to imagine themselves as dominant in the relationship?

The appeasement of tyrants comes at a price.

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