Thai-Cambodia fighting flares again
Phnom Penh - Thai and Cambodian troops clashed with heavy artillery for a sixth day on Wednesday near two disputed 12th-century Hindu temples, the Cambodian defence ministry said following a night of shelling that killed a Thai villager.
Talks between Thai and Cambodian defence ministers to end Southeast Asia's bloodiest border dispute in years were abruptly cancelled, dashing hopes of an imminent end to fighting that has killed at least 14 people and sent more than 50 000 into evacuation centres.
Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon had been expected to meet his Cambodian counterpart, Tea Banh, in Phnom Penh, but he instead was flying to China for previously scheduled meetings.
"We welcome talks but only if Cambodia stops the shooting first," said Thai Army spokesperson Sansern Kaewkamnerd.
Many experts say the fighting over territory and sovereignty is fuelled by political interests. Each government seeks to discredit the other by appealing to nationalists at home, especially as Thailand prepares for a national election expected by July.
A change in government could be in Cambodia's interests.
Analysts said the Thai military could also be flexing its muscles to preserve its sizeable stake in Thailand's political apparatus and to satisfy conservative elites at odds with the country's powerful opposition forces.
Thailand says it wants a bilateral solution to the dispute. Cambodia seeks international mediation and independent monitors in the disputed area as agreed by Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Jakarta in February.
Those differences are posing a major test for ASEAN, a 10-member bloc modelled on the European Union with ambitions to become a regional community by 2015 and a viable counterweight to China's growing diplomatic muscle.
It is also a potential embarrassment for Indonesia, whose foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, as this year's ASEAN chairman, had brokered the UN-backed ceasefire pact in February that would have placed unarmed Indonesian military observers along the disputed border.
The Thai army objected and the deal never went through.
Thailand's foreign minister is due to meet with Natalegawa on Thursday in Jakarta.
The latest fighting began at 05:00 and was continuing more than four hours later with heavy artillery near the Ta Moan and Ta Krabey temples, Cambodia's defence ministry said.
Sovereignty over the ancient, stone-walled Hindu temples - Preah Vihear, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey - and the jungle of the Dangrek Mountains surrounding them has been in dispute since the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in the 1950s. Thailand says the temples perched on an escarpment in landmine-infested terrain are in its Surin province according to a 1947 map. Cambodia says they are its territory.
"We are moving people further away from the border because Cambodia is using longer-range weapons," Surin Province Deputy Governor Yutthana Viriyakitti told reporters.
Before Friday, Cambodian and Thai soldiers jointly patrolled the area largely without incident. Villagers on both sides, many of whom share the same ethnic makeup, would mingle and trade each day.
Fighting also erupted on Tuesday at Preah Vihear, scene of intense clashes on February 4-7 that killed 11 people and a source of tension for generations. An international court awarded the temple to Cambodia 49 years ago, but both countries lay claim to a 4.6 sq km patch of land around it.
The temple was granted Unesco World Heritage status in 2008, a decision fiercely opposed by Thailand on grounds that the land around Preah Vihear was never demarcated.