THAI-CAMBODIAN BORDER – With no “visible upside” to maintaining its position in the disputed areas surrounding the Preah Vihear temple, the Royal Thai Army has quietly withdrawn most of its troops from the area over the last week.
With July’s election results confirmed by the Election Commission, and the nation’s contentious political divide firmly aligned on policy battles in Parliament and the Cabinet, the usefulness of the Preah Vihear issue as a knee-jerk nationalist wedge issue has diminished to the point where the army no longer feels it merits the commitment of defense resources, according to a regional commander.
“Now that Pheu Thai appears to be genuinely in control of the country, our focus needs to turn to making backroom deals with Thaksin regarding our military budgets and the continued absence of oversight in how we spend it,” said Lieutenant General Thawatchai Samutsakorn, Commander General of the Thai Army Region 2.
“The Preah Vihear issue failed to sway voters, so it’s time to move on,” he added.
Citing internal concerns that the occupation of the disputed border area was costing the army upwards of Bt20 million a day, army spokesperson Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd explained that appearing to protect Thailand’s sovereignty was no longer a cost-effective goal.
“With over 1,600 generals in our army, the most per capita of any nation in the world, we need to distribute our funding carefully,” he explained. “Our annual budget for Mercedes-Benz S-Class purchases, for example, is over Bt12 billion, and our budget for golfing green fees is nearly Bt130 million. We can’t just defend every disputed temple forever.”
The task of maintaining and exploiting a newsworthy connection to the Preah Vihear temple was now in civilian hands, he said.
Meanwhile, at a separate press conference, Defense Minister Gen Yutthasak Sasiprapa announced that he would personally oversee the enforcement of the demilitarized zone as ordered by the International Court of Justice.
“The new government remains committed to protecting Thailand’s sovereignty and territory at all costs,” the Minister told reporters, even as Thai army units were dismantling their positions.
The withdrawal of almost all Thai troops leaves the area guarded by only one unit, with no air support and limited artillery. However, General Thawatchai insisted that it was more than adequate.
“Anyone with a brain knows that the Cambodian army, even at full strength, could never have gotten very far into Thailand,” he said. “Our F-15s would have taken them out in ten minutes. Fortunately no one in Thailand has the initiative to research any facts.”
When asked why the deployment of troops was even necessary, he shrugged.
“We needed to show the country that we were in charge,” he said. “And now the show’s over. But there’s always another one coming up.”