TV debate on Preah Vihear shows civilised discourse is possible

You can’t solve a national controversy by hosting a television show – not even one that lasts three hours. But Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva did make that attempt last Sunday. And the outcome: The show did get good ratings, and a rally on the subject dispersed a few hours later.

No, the issue hasn’t been settled. But the fact that Abhisit sat down with his critics on the Preah Vihear temple controversy for a live programme allowed him to once again claim that no other prime minister had done this before.

He had done the same thing with the red-shirt leaders, but the outcome then was far from impressive. His willingness to go public in debates with his opponents certainly distinguishes him from all the other political leaders. And the forum last Sunday showed him in a much better light than his live debate with the red-shirt leaders.

The four members who represented the “Thai Patriots’ Alliance” on the show should also be commended for their no-nonsense, well-argued presentations. There were no emotional outbursts, there was no exchange of vitriolic rhetoric. Even when the two sides were debating certain sensitive points that had underscored their disagreement all along, the protagonists were polite but firm.

The gist of the debate boiled down to whether the Abhisit government will rescind the 2543 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with Cambodia in 2000. The “Patriots’ Alliance” insisted that the government must terminate that accord, otherwise the Cambodian side could interpret it as Thailand’s tacit acceptance of Cambodia’s legal right to over 4.6 square kilometres of disputed territory around the temple, currently claimed by both sides.

Abhisit, as expected, argued that the MOU is in fact beneficial to Thailand since its provisions would restrain Cambodia from trying to proceed with its own territorial claim. The premier says the MOU obliges Cambodia to seek Thailand’s approval on all its activities in any disputed area.

Admittedly, if you had listened to only one side of the argument before watching the televised debate, the exposure to the arguments of the other side would have given you a more balanced view of this contentious issue.

The other hot issue was how the government will handle the alleged intrusion of Khmer villagers into the area claimed by Thailand. At times, Veera Somkwankid, one of the “Patriots’ Alliance” leaders, managed to corner the PM into admitting that his diplomatic and political approach simply isn’t working.

“How many times have we protested officially to Cambodia over the settling of Khmer villagers and the building of a temple in that area?” Veera asked the PM point-blank.

Abhisit said: “About 11 times perhaps.”

Veera: “Are you going to do that again and again despite the failure to convince the Cambodians that they are intruding into our territory?”

Abhisit: “The Foreign Ministry is consulting with the military over this. We would like to employ diplomacy to the utmost. Using force would be the last resort.”

Veera: “I am not pushing you to go to war with Cambodia. But if efforts so far have failed, the government will have to find other means to achieve our purpose. Or else, we might lose more territory as a result.”

Abhisit: “We certainly share the Thai people’s concern about losing territory. The government won’t tolerate that either.”

Veera finally did put enough pressure on Abhisit so that the PM admitted that he would not rule out the use of force in removing the Cambodian settlements in the area.

Interestingly enough, both Veera and Abhisit seemed to agree on one political point when Veera declared towards the end of the debate: “Even if you [Abhisit] agree to do something that we have proposed, there is no guarantee that the next prime minister will follow suit.”

To which Abhisit simply sported a knowing smile and returned to his standing offer: “Let’s work together, share information and keep the dialogue alive. After all, our objectives are the same. We may differ only over the means to achieve them.”

The government was in no position to declare victory after the televised show. The “Thai Patriots’ Alliance”, likewise, could only be cautiously optimistic.

The shift from streetside screaming to a serious, substantial debate on the real core of the issue is certainly a welcome change in tactics by both sides. The public now knows where the two parties are coming from. People now have a better understanding of this highly complicated issue.

Now that a more balanced view has been portrayed for every citizen to grasp, the man on the street realises what the fuss is all about. A better-informed public will now be in a better position to decide whether this government can be trusted to handle this vital issue in its own way.

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นักวิทยาศาสตร์-นักวิจัยอิสระ (Malacologist & Marine Science), ผู้เขียนและเจ้าของเว็บไซต์บอริ่งเดย์

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