Monday, 7 February 2011

Clashes along Thailand-Cambodia border continue and Preah Vihear temple is damaged

An injured Thai soldier after clashes with Cambodian troops

Clashes restarted in the Thai-Cambodia border area on Sunday 6th February, bringing to an end the short-lived ceasefire that was brought into place on Saturday 5th February to try to end the border clashes that took place on Friday and Saturday morning.

Shots were exchanged in the border areas of Thailand's Kantharalak province at about 1:30pm yesterday. More intense exchange began at 6:30pm and lasted about 3 hours. Cambodia's Colonel Chan Narun is quoted by Xinhua as saying "the fighting this time is likely bigger in scale than the two previous clashes - the fighting is spread larger along the border."

"Heavy weapons including rockets, machine guns and mortars, artillery have also been used in the exchange fire," he added.

The fighting is taking place near the 11th century Hindu Preah Vihear temple, and the Cambodia government has said that the temple was damaged in the firefight.

''A wing of our Preah Vihear temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment,'' said a military commander in a statement released by Phnom Penh last night.

Several villages in the Thai region of the border area were also damaged by artillery shells and several people have been injured. Many residents have evacuated Kantharalak.

Clashes on Friday and Saturday killed at least one Thai soldier and one Thai citizen according to the Bangkok Post. Cambodia says two of its soldiers and one civilian were killed. One of the Cambodian soldiers killed was reportedly not hit by bullets from Thai troops, but accidently fired upon himself. Higher numbers of casualities have been reported by some media sources, but it is not yet clear how accurate they are.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the border clash started when Thai bulldozers tried to make their way towards Keo Sikha Kiri Svarak pagoda near Preah Vihear temple on Friday.

"We banned them to enter, they still pushed in and opened fire on us first," Hun said. "Therefore, Cambodia has to use self-defense rights to protect our territory integrity."

"We had confiscated 3 bulldozers at that time and just returned to Thai side on February 6. They [Thailand] planned to fight to take the 4.6 kilometers area near the Preah Vihear temple," Hun added.

Thailand, however, has blamed Cambodia for starting the fight. A military unit commander stationed near the disputed area told the Bangkok Post Cambodian soldiers launched rocket-propelled grenades and several artillery rounds at Thai military camps at Don-aow pass and at homes in Don-aow and Phum Saron villages. ''They were trying to take over Don-aow pass [which lies in the 4.6-square-kilometre disputed area near Preah Vihear], an important strategic route,'' the commander said.

The international community has responded quickly to the violence. ASEAN chairman and Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, is visiting the two countries in a bid to secure peace. He will visit Cambodia on Monday 7th February and Thailand on Tuesday. The regional grouping has offered to mediate.

On Monday morning, Hun Sen appealed to the United Nations Security Council to convene an urgent meeting to resolve the border dispute. He said the recent fighting can be considered "big clashes or a small war" and called for the council to intervene to stop what he said was Thailand's "repeated acts of aggression" against his country. He called for a UN buffer zone to be created in the disputed zone.

Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has rejected calls for intervention by other countries to help resolve the conflict. On Sunday, in his weekly television and radio broadcast, he said there was no need for other ASEAN member countries to step in. He said he was confident that the dispute could be resolved through bilateral negotiations, but insisted Thailand would not withdraw its troops, as demanded by Cambodia.

He added that the Thai government would seek the suspension of Preah Vihear temple's listing as an UNESCO World Heritage site.

While the International Court of Justice ruled that the Preah Vihear temple was in Cambodian territory in 1962, it failed to rule on the area around the temple, which has been in dispute ever since. Cambodia succeeded in having the temple listed as a World Heritage site in 2008 and tensions between the neighbours have been high since.

More recently, tensions have risen over the arrest of seven Thai politicians and nationalist activists in Cambodian territory. Last week, Veera Somkwankid and Ratree Pipatanapaiboon were sentenced to eight and six years in jail respectively for espionage.

Veera is the leader of the Thailand Patriot Network (TPN), a splinter group of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), better known as the 'Yellow Shirts' movement. The PAD have called on the Thai government to take a tougher stance against Cambodia over the border issue.

Sources: Bangkok Post, Xinhua, BBC News

For more information on the Thailand-Cambodia border dispute, see the Menas Borders website, here.

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