A border left ill-defined by a century-old French treaty leads to armed clashes between Thailand and one of its neighbors, killing 1,000 people on both sides.
The scenario may sound eerily similar to the current standoff between Thailand and Cambodia, but the fight in question took place in the 1980s, when Thailand and Laos had their own bloody dispute over a contested piece of border territory.
After sporadic fighting in 1980 and again in 1984 over three border villages that both countries claimed, the Thai and Lao armies engaged in a contained battle from December 1987 to February 1988.
Thailand’s disagreement with Laos over the small disputed area in Laos’ Xainyaburi province stemmed from different interpretations of the same early 20th-century border treaties, especially the 1907 French-Siam convention, which used natural watersheds to delimit the borders between the Siamese kingdom and France’s Indochina. These are the same treaties that Thailand is today disputing with Cambodia over territory around Preah Vihear temple.
Thailand didn’t negate the 1907 treaties, but argued over which Mekong tributary actually formed the border with Laos, wrote Ronald Bruce St John in “The Land Boundaries of Indochina,” which was published in 1998 by the International Boundaries Research Unit.
Corruption also played its part in the 1987 hostilities, claimed Robert Karniol, a defense analyst writing for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper.
“Basically, a Thai company was harvesting timber in this area, having facilitated this by paying off both Thai and Laos army personnel. The fighting flared when the company, on Thai army advice, stopped paying the Laotians. It ended when they started paying again,” Karniol wrote in an e-mail.
After the fighting, and the 1,000 casualties, the border returned to a status quo with Thailand and Laos later forming a joint commission to demarcate the border, whose work is apparently nearing completion 20 years later.
But the short conflict was militarily significant as Laotian forces proved stronger than expected, Karniol added.
“[T]he fighting soon deteriorated into a stalemate as heavily favored Thai forces failed to push a dogged Laotian defense off Hill 1428,” St John wrote. “It was only after suffering combined casualties of more than 1,000 troops that Thailand and Laos agreed to a cease-fire,” he said.
Laotian troops were battle-hardened by years of fighting anti-communist forces and were well supplied by their Vietnamese allies, said Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies-Asia based in Singapore. On the other hand, Thai forces were well equipped but poorly led, as “constant politicking in Bangkok” distracted senior officers, he wrote in an e-mail.
The conflict ended when it had escalated to such a degree that the only way out for both sides was a full-scale war, Karniol said. Fortunately, Thailand chose to cool down the confrontation, and though the border with Lao has remained a touchy subject, tensions subsided as Thailand’s economic investment in Laos grew in the following years.
Similarities regarding the political and historical circumstances of the Thai-Lao clash, known as the Baan Rom Klao conflict, and the current dispute between Thailand and Cambodia are striking, but that’s where the likeness ends.
The Baan Rom Klao conflict unfolded in a world where East and West were still a relevant distinction. Allies of both countries, the West and Eastern bloc, played a role they are unlikely to play today if the conflict near Preah Vihear temple escalates.
Vietnam equipped and trained Laotian forces and also frequently clashed with Thai forces in the 1980s on the Thai-Cambodian border, following its occupation of Cambodia after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Huxley said.
News reports of the time recount Thailand accusing Laos of having brought in fighters from fellow communist state Cuba, though Vientiane denied it at the time.
“[C]ontemporary Cambodia is neither as well-armed as Vietnam was by the Soviet Union during the 1980s, and unlike Laos in the late 1980s it does not have Vietnamese support,” Huxley added.
Thailand, on the other hand, has enjoyed decades of military cooperation with the US.
But the international community appears to be steering clear of Thailand’s current dispute with Cambodia, at least as far as the public can see.
Foreign governments have at best expressed concern and urged for peaceful bilateral resolution though Cambodia has on several occasions threatened to take the issue to the UN, without consequences.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in an Oct 15 statement after fighting killed three Cambodian soldiers at the border called for bilateral talks only.
In Asean, Malaysia voiced concern, but Foreign Minister Rais Yatim said Wednesday that his country would not intervene or play a mediator role in the dispute, according to Malaysian national news agency Bernama.
So far, Cambodia and Thailand stand alone, face to face.
“There might be some comparison drawn with the Baan Rom Klao conflict in the sense that a minor scuffle can threaten to escalate into a larger conflict,” Karniol said of the current Thai-Cambodia standoff.
“But, ultimately, cooler heads prevailed then and are likely to prevail now,” he said.
Qian Hai, spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, expressed a similar sentiment.
“They’re both our good friends [Cambodia and Thailand],” Qian Hai said by telephone Thursday.
“They can settle down their dispute through negotiations, we hope,” he added.