After one week of clashes at the border, Thailand and Cambodia have signed a ceasefire. But leaders of the two countries are still wary. The fighting has caused thousands of villagers near the border to flee their homes.
A ceasefire has stopped clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops
Thai and Cambodian military commanders reached a ceasefire agreement Thursday bringing a temporary halt to clashes that had continued into the early hours of Thursday morning.
The ceasefire comes as somewhat of a surprise, as Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva cancelled a meeting with Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen after travelling to the border near Cambodia to meet with local villagers and troops on Wednesday, after a week of fighting.
The Thai government spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, said that its military spoke with Cambodian officers at a local level and they have agreed to implement measures to stop the clashes. He adds that this will be monitored in the next few days "to make sure that all units understand what is agreed upon". "This is an encouraging sign and we welcome the Cambodian initiative," Wattanayagorn says further. "From the beginning we offered talks and we welcome the Cambodians to agree with us on this position."
Thousands of people have fled the conflict areas
The clashes were centered around the disputed 11th century Hindu Preah Vihear Temple. Both Cambodia and Thailand have laid claim to the temple. In 2008 Cambodia successfully had the temple declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In recent days fighting had moved along the border, threatening an escalation and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. Thailand accused Cambodia of acts of aggression, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry. But Phnom Penh said Thai forces have shelled ruins of two smaller Hindu temple sites that date back 1,000 years.
Hang Chayya, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Khmer Institute for Democracy, says Cambodia, which had earlier sought United Nations intervention, is still hoping for international moderators along the border, as the permanence of the ceasefire is not yet given.
Thai soldiers patrol next to a poster of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej near the border to Cambodia
"Basically they are still looking for intervention from the ASEAN and they still think the Thai are the aggressor," Chayya says, explaining that Thailand refuses accepting the previous meeting that the two foreign ministers met in Jakarta, where they had principally agreed to allow observers from ASEAN coming.
The ASEAN chair, Indonesia, backs calls for observers. But Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, cancelled a visit this week after the Thai military refused to allow foreign observers into the country.
The Thai Foreign Ministry said earlier this week it might consider supporting the plan, though. The government stands by a position of ending the conflict through bilateral mechanism.
"Highly emotional and politicized issue"
Carl Thayer, a defense analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia, says the fighting has become "highly emotional and politicized" as the Thai military has reinforced its positions. The Thai military recently acknowledged using a form of cluster munitions along the border.
A Thai girl takes a rest at an evacuation center after her family fled their home following the fighting
Thayer says he is beginning to think that the the Thai military is "out of control," so to speak. "It's not operating under civilian direction and it's taken a very proactive, if not aggressive stance along the border," he adds.
Thailand says it is "committed" to solving the issue. But Thai military commanders remain reluctant to allow foreign observers into the border region. The issue is set to be raised during regional talks, which are scheduled to take place in May in Jakarta between ASEAN foreign ministers.
Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Sarah Berning