Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged brief gunfire at the disputed border near ancient Preah Vihear Hindu temple on Wednesday. The casualty figures remained unclear. But Cambodian officials said at least two of their soldiers died and two others were wounded. Thai officials said that five of their troops were hurt.
11th century Preah Vihear temple
It was apparently an hour long battle with small arms and rockets near the 11 th century Preah Vihear Temple on the Thai-Cambodia border. Both sides have accused each other of firing first. Tensions simmered this week after Cambodia complained that at least 80 Thai troops had attempted to enter into the disputed area. Attempts to salvage the situation by talks failed quickly.
On Tuesday Cambodian Prime minister Hun Sen issued an ultimatum to the Thais to withdraw or risk a conflict: “I have told the Thai foreign minister that sending a lot of troops along the border is dangerous and can provoke a large-scale armed conflict.”
Bangkok insisted it had overseen the area for decades and therefore would not budge any time soon. “Why should we do this? We are in our homeland. How can they expect us to leave our home? We should negotiate to avoid a confrontation but we will not withdraw our soldiers," said Thai foreign minister Sompong Amornvivat .
Thai domestic politics to blame?
Bangkok has meanwhile also urged its citizens to leave Cambodia immediately, adding that the military has an evacuation plan ready if needed.
In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia. However, it couldn’t determine the ownership of a small piece of land near the temple.
The dispute flared up in July this year after the temple was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, sparking angers among Thai nationalists and later prompting both sides to deploy hundreds of soldiers along the border.
Professor Milton Osborn, an expert on Southeast Asian affairs at the Australian National University, thinks the Thai domestic politics should be blamed more for the rise in tension. “Some time ago the then Thai foreign minister agreed to the inscription of the Preah Vihear temple on the United Nations heritage list and this was taken by the opponents of the Thai government as a basis for criticising the government.”
National pride counts
After holding several rounds of talks, both sides agreed to reduce troop numbers in the disputed zone in August. But tensions persisted and the situation did not return to normal completely.
Experts, however, rule out a possibility of a full-fledged war in view of the fact that Thailand has been facing political crisis for months now and that impoverished Cambodia doesn’t have a strong military.
“I don't think both sides can afford a war and indeed the skirmishes that have occurred so far are not of a considerable size. But national feelings and national rhetoric have become involved,” says Professor Osborne.
The regional military commanders of Thailand and Cambodia are now expected to meet on Thursday in a bid to ease tensions.