March 25, 2011: Thitinan Pongsudhirak

(Click to enlarge) From left to right: Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak and Dr. Satu Limaye discuss the Thai-Cambodian border dispute.

Domestic Drivers, Regional Dynamics: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Dispute

WASHINGTON, DC (April 1, 2011) --  The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple complex recently turned violent when both sides engaged in military skirmishes that left several troops dead, scores of civilians injured, and many villagers displaced. Known as Preah Vihear to Cambodians and Phra Viharn to Thais, this ancient temple, perched on a cliff and accessed by a contested parcel of land, is a legacy of colonial history and an ongoing source of bilateral tension that has periodically flared up behind guns and tanks and in the corridors of international legal adjudication.


In this seminar, Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak described the domestic drivers of the Preah Vihear controversy and the responses of ASEAN and international actors. Although skirmishes on the border have now subsided, conflict is still simmering. On the Thai side, political unrest has impeded efforts to resolve the conflicting territorial claims. Dr. Pongsudhirak explained that the contested land and Thai-Cambodian relations have now become pawns in the Thai domestic political game.


The speaker suggested that this contention in bilateral relations could continue for the next five to eight years; however, this also would depend on how Thai politics unfold in the near future. Additionally, when Cambodia chairs ASEAN in 2012, Thai-Cambodia relations will likely become further strained- Cambodia may use this opportunity to multilateralize and regionalize the issue, despite Thailand’s preference for a bilateral resolution.

For the 40 years of ASEAN’s existence, the regional organization has succeeded in avoiding open conflict amongst its member countries. Thus, Dr. Pongsudhirak argues that this dispute is also a risk for ASEAN. He believes that “if it works out well and resolution through mediation can be attained under the leadership of Indonesia, then this would be good for ASEAN... But if there are more skirmishes, ASEAN becomes ineffectual.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is currently a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also an associate professor of international political economy at Chulalongkorn University and the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) in Thailand. Dr. Pongsudhirak has co-edited and authored three books, including Thailand’s Trade Policy Strategy and Capacity, with Razeen Sally, and written numerous journal articles and book chapters on Thailand’s politics, political economy, and foreign policy, and ASEAN security and economic cooperation. These articles have appeared in many publications, such as Global Asia, Southeast Asian Affairs, Far Eastern Economic Review, and East Asian Forum Quarterly; he is also frequently quoted by the media. Previously, Dr. Pongsudhirak has held visiting positions at Stanford University, ISEAS in Singapore, and University of Tuebingen, and has lectured at many local and overseas universities. He received his PhD from the London School of Economics where his work on the political economy of the 1997 Thai economic crisis was awarded the United Kingdom’s Best Dissertation prize.