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Why The Thai / Cambodian Border

 

Why British and Western involvement on the Thai / Cambodian border - letter to the editor of the Phnom Penh Post  2000, by Derek Tonkin British Ambassador to Vietnam 1980-82 and to Thailand and Laos 1986-89.

 

Thatcher connection

Dear Editor,

I found the report by Robert Carmichael of the quiet, but very effective contribution which Mme Kek Galabru had made in setting up the initial meetings between Prince Sihanouk and Mr Hun Sen in the latter part of the 1980s of great interest. I am delighted that she has, in her own typically modest way, decided to let the role of herself and her husband be more widely known.

A perspective history of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords may not be written for several years to come. The official archives of the principal countries involved may not be available for public inspection for at least another 20 years, in most cases for another 30 or 50 years, and in a few cases never. It is however even at this relatively early stage, in historical terms, sensible to put on record the important contribution which another person made to the peace process, though this is neither widely known nor recognised. I refer to Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister of Britain in the late 1980s.

Mrs Thatcher came to Thailand in August, 1988 on her way back to London from a visit to Hong Kong particularly to look at the Cambodian situation, of which she had no first-hand experience, but which she realized was of importance to the future stability and prosperity of the region. To that extent she was well ahead of one of her illustrious predecessors in the Conservative Party, Sir Winston Churchill, who in his 79th year was heard to remark: "I have lived 78 years without hearing of bloody places like Cambodia"1.

Sir Winston's comments, however, were related to what the late author and diplomat Sir James Cable has described as "the last example of an independent British policy exercising significant influence in the resolution of a major international crisis"2, namely the Geneva Conference on Indochina of 1954 which was co-chaired by Britain and the Soviet Union and which brought a measure of peace and prosperity to Cambodia in the late 1950s and 1960s until the war in Vietnam engulfed Cambodia as well.

I was British Ambassador in Bangkok at the time of Mrs Thatcher's visit in August, 1988, which occurred at the time of the transition of the premiership from General Prem Tinsulanonda to General Chatichai Choonhavan, whose mutual desire to play host to Mrs Thatcher was happily resolved by an invitation issuing from both Thai Prime Ministers.

Mrs Thatcher was accompanied by her Private Secretary, Charles Powell, and her Press Secretary, Bernard Ingram, and a team of advisers and journalists who included not a single official from the British Foreign Office. It was accordingly left to me as the sole Foreign Office representative to explain the nuances and complexities of the Cambodian situation, and it was fortunate indeed that I had served in Cambodia in the early 1960s and in Vietnam in the early 1980s as well as in the South East Asia Department of the Foreign Office in between.

Mrs Thatcher had a prodigious capacity to absorb and retain the information which I fired in her direction. This did I hope prepare her for her meeting and discussions with Prince Sihanouk which took place at the Funcinpec camp at Site B. The record of those discussions must alas await the pleasure of our "30 Year Rule" for the release of documents to the Public Record Office at Kew in London. Suffice to say that on her return to Bangkok, Mrs Thatcher called an immediate Press Conference and announced that Britain intended as a matter of urgency and importance to seek the support and endorsement of the other four members of the UN Security Council (United States, Soviet Union, France and China) in securing a settlement of the Cambodian problem.

She was as good as her word, and though the Foreign Office in London was somewhat diffident that this initiative was the result of her endeavours rather than those of the Foreign Secretary at the time, Sir Geoffrey Howe, instructions were promptly dispatched to the British delegation to the United Nations in New York and the engagement of the UN Security Council in the peace process was energetically put in train.

Mrs Thatcher recognized that Britain had long played an objective and impartial role in Indochina, both as Co-Chairman of the Geneva Conference on Indochina in 1954 and of the Geneva Conference on Laos in 1962. She realized that a catalyst was needed in the Security Council, which Britain alone could provide. China had been supportive of the 1975 revolution in Cambodia which resulted in the emergence of Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot; the Soviet Union had a Treaty of Cooperation and Friendship with Vietnam whose troops, supported by revolutionary Khmer forces opposed to the Pol Pot regime, liberated Cambodia in 1979; France was the former colonial power; and the United States had yet to recover from its traumatic involvement in Vietnam. In short, only Britain of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council had the independence and objectivity to raise the Cambodian issue with the other four Members without raising suspicions that we were acting primarily in our own interests.

The course of events which subsequently led to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the arrival of the United National Transitional Authority in Cambodia to prepare for the 1993 elections has been well documented. Nonetheless the particular role played by Mrs Thatcher in galvanizing the UN Security Council into action needs to be put on record as well.

It would not be fair to say that I was rebuked by the Foreign Office in London for putting ideas into Mrs Thatcher's mind, but word came back that there was some displeasure in certain quarters for what was described as my "settee diplomacy" in sitting down with Mrs Thatcher and giving her a three-year course in the history, politics, culture and economy of Cambodia in the very short time at my disposal. I put it to her that there were those on the left of the political spectrum in Cambodia, whom Prince Sihanouk had regarded since the early 1960s as Khmers Rouges in contrast to the Khmers Bleus on the right of the political spectrum, who could certainly play a part in Cambodia's future body politic, as they had in the early 1960s, and it is no coincidence that the present Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, Finance Minister and Minister of Commerce of Cambodia are indeed covered by that generic description.

- Derek Tonkin, British Ambassador to Vietnam (1980-82) and to Thailand and Laos (1986-89), Guildford, Surrey, UK


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