With Thailand lingering in its political miasma and Cambodia’s military far from keeping up with its neighbor, neither side seems likely to want to engage in a full-blown conflict at the border, defense analysts say.
“I’d expect that things will calm down before too long,” said Robert Karniol, a defense analyst who writes for Singapore’s Straits Times. “The potential fly in the ointment is whether either side sees domestic political advantage in keeping tensions high. Another concern is that minor incidents can flare into a more significant confrontation due to emotional pressures.”
The Thai armed forces dwarf those of Cambodia. A 2008 report from the International Institute of Strategic Studies numbers Cambodian land forces at 75,000, whereas Thailand has 190,000 active soldiers, plus tens of thousands of reservists.
“Basically, on paper, Thailand is much stronger militarily than Cambodia,” said Tim Huxley, executive director of the IISS-Asia, adding that Cambodia’s annual defense budget is about $140 million and Thailand’s is 25 times that—$3.5 billion.
Thailand also enjoys a 46,000-strong air force with 165 combat capable aircraft and 47 helicopters, whereas half of Cambodia’s squadron of 19 MIGs is reported to need upgrades, and the country keeps just 18 helicopters.
“One thing the Cambodians are likely regretting…is that they allowed the US some years ago to buy up and destroy all their man-portable surface-to-air missiles,” Karniol wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “And this means they have no protection against air attack.”
The problems of Cambodia’s military are many, the analysts said: scantly paid soldiers, a poorly organized amalgam of forces that were in conflict not long ago and aging equipment from the Soviet era, among others.
“Segments of the Cambodian army may be experts in guerilla warfare, but still, this is a fairly undisciplined army,” said Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based journalist and consultant specializing in security issues. “It’s very difficult to see any real center of command,” he added by telephone from Bangkok on Tuesday.
But Thailand also has its issues. Facing street protests and a lack of confidence in Bangkok, the government has little leeway to negotiate with the Cambodian government, Huxley said by telephone from Singapore on Wednesday. The domestic turmoil also distracts the Thai army, which is known for political maneuvering and multiple coups, as does a Muslim rebellion in the country’s south, where many troops have been sent, he said.
The terrain around Preah Vihear temple—rugged jungle laced with landmines—is also a thorn in Thailand’s side.
If armed confrontation continued between the two countries, it would most likely be constant skirmishes such as those between Thailand and Laos in 1987 to 1988, Huxley said—a type of fighting with which Cambodians are more acquainted than Thais.
But the Cambodian terrain could also play against its own soldiers. Cambodians access the area through a narrow, difficult road, Lintner said by telephone from Bangkok on Tuesday.
“If there’s a conflict, all the Thais would have to do is to bomb that road,” he said.
“The Cambodians would be trapped on the top of the cliff, with their backs against the steep drop down to the Cambodian lowlands,” Lintner added in an e-mail Tuesday. “It would be suicide for the Cambodian side to attack the Thais.”