Thai-Cambodian generals in talks after border clash kills two

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Preah Vihear Temple (Kao Phra Viharn)
Image: Henry Flower.

Today saw high-level talks between Thai and Cambodian military leaders following a border skirmish yesterday which left two Cambodian soldiers dead, injuries on both sides, and ten Thai troops captured. Several hours of talks have led to an agreement for joint military patrols along the disputed border.

Wednesday's exchange of fire in the disputed border region surrounding Preah Vihear Temple is the latest in a dispute over an area of scrubland which both Cambodia and Thailand claim. While each side claims the other initiated the clash, government officials in both capitals have sought to downplay the seriousness of the incident and stress that a negotiated settlement is the only reasonable solution. The disputed territory is a little under five square kilometres and was, in 1962, awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice. The decision caused resentment in Thailand which continues to this day.

Downplaying the incident, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong spoke of the negotiations in positive terms, stressing the skirmish was, "an incident between soldiers and not an invasion by Thailand". Thai Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat stressed the need for the dispute over territory to be resolved peacefully.

According to officials, apart from the two Cambodian soldiers who died in the skirmish, an additional two Khmer troops and five Thais were injured. Thailand has denied the claim by Cambodia that ten soldiers were captured in the disputed territory. On the other side of the border, Cambodian officials have said the captives will be returned upon request.

Location of Preah Vihear Temple.
Image: Matthew Edwards from CIA World factbook maps.

The dispute over the contested territory flared up in June; UNESCO awarded the Hindu Preah Vihear Temple the status of World Heritage Site as a Cambodian property, bringing the issue back into the spotlight. The 900-year-old temple sits at the centre of a military build-up on both sides of the border and despite an agreed pull-back in August the situation deteriorated when Cambodia asserted that Thai troops had returned to the entrenched positions that now see around 1,000 soldiers from both sides facing each other. The return of Thai military forces saw the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen threaten to turn the area into a "death zone".

United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon spoke yesterday on the incident, expressing grave concern over the escalation of the conflict and loss of life. A spokesperson for the Secretary-General said, "He calls on both parties to exercise utmost restraint and urges them to expedite bilateral talks so that their differences can be resolved peacefully". This is not the first time Ban Ki-moon has spoken on the issue; previously calls for restraint have been issued as the military build-up in the area has continued.

The ongoing dispute and yesterday's escalation have seen moves to take civilians out of harm's way. The government in Bangkok urged Thai citizens in Cambodia to leave the country if they were not there on urgent business. Over 400 returned on a Thai Airways flight following the call to evacuate Thai nationals. With a 2003 dispute and unrest having seen Thailand's embassy in Phnom Penh torched, Cambodian authorities deployed riot police around the building yesterday in case the dispute led to violence. In the disputed region, thousands of Cambodians have left due to the build-up of forces on both sides of the border and increased tensions.

Should UNESCO take total control over all World Heritage Sites and their surroundings to avoid conflicts like this?

The current flare-up along the border is the second incident this month; on October 3 there was a clash where Thailand claims Cambodian forces crossed the border and fired on Thai rangers causing two injuries. That incident saw both sides exchange protest letters. Thailand claimed that rangers patrolling on their side of the border encountered Cambodian troops and demanded they return across the border. The alleged response was apparently orders from superiors for the Cambodians to begin firing. The strongly-worded complaint stated, "the above-mentioned intrusion of the Cambodian soldiers into Thailand's territory is a serious violation of Thailand's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Furthermore, the shooting by the Cambodian troops against the unarmed Thai para-military rangers is regarded as a brutal and aggressive act and is contrary to the spirit of friendly relations between Cambodia and Thailand."