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Fragile calm after Thai-Cambodian border clashes

Thai-Cambodian border clashes - that claimed the lives of 11 people and forced 25,000 to flee their homes on both sides of the border - have calmed. But the border issue at the heart of it is far from over.

At the Preah Vihear temple, the situation has calmed for now after four days of clashes in jungles around the temple

At the Preah Vihear temple, the situation has calmed for now after four days of clashes

Soldiers on both sides of the border have held fire under a fragile truce, but are reportedly digging fresh military positions bracing for more fighting in and around the 11th century temple.

Piles of sandbags and newly built bunkers surround the Preah Vihear temple, where troops remain on high alert after four days of clashing in disputed jungle around the temple.

Cambodian soldiers patrol at the Preah Vihear temple near the Thai-Cambodian border

Cambodian soldiers patrol at the Preah Vihear temple near the Thai-Cambodian border

"We can't feel confident yet, because fighting could break out at any time," said Cambodian soldier Nob Sinath. "The Thai side are constantly watching us, and if we aren't careful they will take action so we must be prepared."

Fear of more clashes

At the site, blackened craters from artillery fire and the charred remnants of fires, broken pillars and shrapnel and bullet damages left on hundreds of stones show evidence of the weekend clashes.

"Things are calm, but it's still very tense," said Cambodian Lieutenant Tek Saran. "We don't know when this situation will become normal again."

The fierce gun battles and shelling sent thousands of villagers fleeing and turned the otherwise tranquil mountain plateau into a chaotic combat zone.

"In the last few days I've been running for cover," said Seng Ly, a 19-year-old monk who like many other monks sought refuge at the temple from the artillery shells. "The Thais are Buddhists too – why did they attack our temple? I'm really afraid."

In Anglong Veng, a town about 15 kilometres from the Thai-Cambodia frontier, residents were braced for further clashes. Shops and businesses were shuttered and truckloads of infantry soldiers rumbled towards the border.

Diplomatic efforts

Both sides blame each other for instigating the violence and both face intense diplomatic pressure to lay down arms. The Indonesian Foreign Minister who visited Phnom Penh and Bangkok in his capacity as the chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) said, "it is a border issue between the two member states and can only be addressed bilaterally." He added that ASEAN could only play a supportive role.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's call for the United Nations Security Council to intervene was rejected

Hun Sen's call for the UN Security Council to intervene was rejected

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had over the weekend called on the United Nations Security Council to intervene, but the council rejected it saying the problem should be solved at a regional level.

Thailand also insists on a bilateral solution. The Thai foreign minister said he planned to meet his Cambodian counterpart soon to discuss how to end the fighting - the fiercest since the early 1990s, when Cambodia's Khmer Rouge forces operated in the area.

"Cambodia wants peace, nothing else, so let negotiations solve this dispute," said Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan.

He said Phnom Penh felt international pressure would help to defuse the situation. "Right now, it is the battlefield of the diplomats who are negotiating," Phay Siphan said of Natalegawa's diplomatic mission.

Preah Vihear temple – the bone of contention

Relations between Thailand and Cambodian have been volatile since July 2008, when UNESCO's World Heritage Committee added Preah Vihear temple to its list of cultural sites, despite Thai objections.

The 11th-century Hindu temple, perched on a cliff in the Dangrek mountain range that vaguely defines the border, has been a bone of contention for the past five decades.

The Preah Vihear temple perched on a cliff in the Dangrek mountain range that vaguely defines the border, has been a bone of contention for the past five decades

The Preah Vihear temple has been a bone of contention for decades

In 1962 the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia, but failed to rule on a 4.6-square-kilometre plot of land nearby that both countries claim.

Cambodia blamed the Thai military for shelling the temple and collapsing a wing of the temple, and has requested the UNESCO to send a team to assess the damage. Thai officials have dismissed this as propaganda.

Internal pressure on Thai authorities

Pressure is also building for the Thai Prime Minister to take a tougher line against Cambodia. The ultra-nationalist People's Alliance for Democracy, has threatened to stage a mass demonstration on Friday against the government's handling of the border conflict with Cambodia. The so-called "Yellow Shirts" want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign for mismanaging the border dispute.

The Yellow Shirts have threatened to stage a mass demonstration against the Thai government

The "Yellow Shirts" have threatened to stage a mass demonstration against the Thai government

The Thai cabinet on Tuesday approved the imposition of a strict security law in parts of Bangkok to better cope with a series of anti-government protests planned for this month.

It allows authorities to impose curfews, operate checkpoints, restrict movements of protesters and act fast if rallies by the yellow shirts turn violent or if they try to seize buildings.

Unclear reasons for escalation

The reasons behind the latest fighting remain murky. Some analysts point to the probability of hawkish Thai generals and nationalist allies trying to topple Thailand's government or to create a pretext to stage another coup and cancel elections expected later this year.

Others say it may be a breakdown in communication channels at a time of strained relations over Cambodia's flying of a national flag in the disputed area and the laying of a stone slab inscribed with "This is Cambodia."

Author: Sherpem Sherpa (Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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