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  • Latent Danger:Boundary Disputes and Border Issues in Southeast Asia
  • Barry Wain (bio)

A Challenge for ASEAN

Tension between Thailand and Cambodia that escalated into armed clashes in 2011 did more than threaten the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The fighting over their disputed border, which claimed dozens of casualties and displaced tens of thousands of villagers, exposed a little-recognized weakness in Southeast Asia: countless border disputes and other land and maritime boundary issues that linger unresolved. While regional attention has focused on China's provocations in support of expansive claims in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian governments have ignored many of their own border problems.

Although these disputes are largely dormant, and there is no indication that they will flare into violence anytime soon, the Thai-Cambodian experience demonstrated the potential danger. In 2008, the two countries signed up to develop jointly the ancient, borderline Preah Vihear temple as a symbol of their "long-lasting friendship", only to open fire on each other over the matter a few months later.2 Many of the latent disputes carry similar historical baggage and are susceptible to the kind of nationalist manipulation employed by conservative Thai political factions to whip up sentiments against Cambodia. Moreover, as with Preah Vihear, the core of almost all the disputes is sovereignty, which is emotionally charged and sensitive.

The resort to arms over a long-standing territorial disagreement is further evidence that borders, far from becoming redundant as globalization advances [End Page 38] and consolidates, are being guarded more zealously than ever. It is also a stark warning that ASEAN's historical stand of deliberately shelving territorial disputes in the interests of regional cohesion and harmony is no longer valid. Years of institutionalized interaction and enmeshment in a multilayered and multitracked web of cooperation failed to produce "restraining effects" on members tempted to use force to settle differences, long an article of ASEAN faith.3 While a case can be made for ASEAN to review its entire approach to conflict resolution, the association also needs to change its attitude to boundary disputes and border issues that may disturb the peace in the first place.

Colonial Legacy

Most land boundary disputes can be traced to the colonial era, when European nations imposed the alien concept of fixed borders on Southeast Asia between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rarely consulting traditional kingdoms, sultanates, and chiefdoms, whose influence ebbed and flowed with circumstances, the Europeans carved up the region among themselves as they manoeuvred for economic and strategic advantage. While the successor independent states largely accepted the borders, inconveniently and arbitrarily drawn though they were, the region inherited numerous boundary discrepancies, many of them not obvious or overlooked in the first flush of freedom.

The emergence of a global regime that permits states access to the bounty of the seas, including fish, minerals, and hydrocarbon deposits, complicated the picture in Southeast Asia. As the move to parcel out great swathes of the ocean gathered momentum in the mid-1970s, it touched off a scramble for sea territory that has been likened to the earlier onshore competition among the colonial powers.

With Southeast Asian countries joining the rush to extend their domains seaward, the failure to settle onshore territorial disputes assumed greater significance, since maritime boundaries are measured from land under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Ownership of bits and pieces, such as a small, uninhabited island previously thought worthless, could now yield a disproportionate harvest at sea. With land and sea claims interlinked, the number of disputes has proliferated and assumed greater potency.

In delimiting boundaries, colonial authorities not only sliced through villages, ethnic communities, and indigenous princedoms, incubating a host of future political problems, they also mapped their territories vaguely and unrealistically at times. Surveyors drew straight lines on maps to connect known points or geographical coordinates, or followed features of the physical landscape, such as [End Page 39] hills, watersheds, and bluffs. They also made frequent use of rivers, including the mighty Mekong, which are conspicuous landmarks but have the unfortunate habit of changing course over time.

Where boundaries were demarcated — actually marked...


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