Asia Times Online
April 26, 2011
BANGKOK - Thailand and Cambodia fortified their border positions on Tuesday after four days of artillery and mortar battles killed seven Cambodian soldiers and five Thai troops, while both sides tried to dominate nearby ancient Hindu temple ruins. No deaths were reported during Monday's clashes.
Thai troops with scant medical equipment used stretchers and open pickup trucks to transport some injured soldiers from border fights to hospitalization during the weekend. Thailand moved tanks and armored personnel carriers along the mountainous jungle frontier about 560 kilometers northeast of Bangkok.
Cambodia installed more multiple-rocket launchers and other heavy weaponry to bolster its side. Phnom Penh said on Monday that shelling and rifle fire by Thai forces during the weekend damaged the crumbling stone ruins of two small 1,000-year-old Hindu temples, Ta Krabey and Ta Moan. The extent of the damage was unclear.
The ruins are in a disputed border area where most of the four straight days of clashes have occurred. Both Buddhist-majority countries again used artillery, mortars and rifles on Monday night near Ta Krabey, according to Thai and Cambodian military spokesmen.
"The Cambodian acts of aggression left Thailand with no choice but to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by using proportionate means with necessity, under international law, and strictly directed at only military targets," the Thai Foreign Ministry said on Sunday.
About 20,000 villagers on each side of the frontier have fled to makeshift shelters, while camouflaged Thai and Cambodian troops continue to patrol the jungle. The clashes were not expected to escalate immediately into full-scale war between Thailand and Cambodia, but the fighting has shut cross-border trade and caused jitters in both Southeast Asian capitals.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - of which both Thailand and Cambodia are members - have called on the countries to arrange a ceasefire, but the Thai military said it was fighting to stop Cambodia's attempt to seize the Ta Krabey and Ta Moan temple ruins.
Cambodia wants to expand upon its 1962 success when the International Court of Justice in the Hague awarded Cambodia ownership over larger stone temple ruins at Preah Vihear, about 201 kilometers to the east of the current fighting, the Thai army said.
"There must not be Cambodian soldiers around Preah Vihear, other temples, and communities," Thai army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday.
"Cambodia would have seized the area, as they did in the areas near Preah Vihear Temple" Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said on Sunday. "So letting problems occur today is better than seeing it turn chronic in the future," he said, explaining why Thai forces were defending the two smaller temples and nearby disputed territory.
Both sides have repeatedly blamed the other for being the aggressor and firing first. In February, four days of fighting near Preah Vihear killed a total of 10 soldiers on both sides before hostilities quieted.
Cambodia wants to internationalize the problem and called on the United Nations and Indonesia to mediate. Thailand has said it prefers to negotiate through bilateral rather than multilateral means.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, in his role as current chair of ASEAN, postponed his scheduled trip on Monday to Cambodia and Thailand after Bangkok tried to limit Indonesia's efforts to send military observers to the disputed border where recent fighting occurred.
During the weekend, Cambodia said Thai forces fired 75mm and 105mm shells "loaded with poison gas", but no evidence was provided and Bangkok denied the allegation. In February, Bangkok denied using cluster bombs but later reluctantly admitted to firing several cluster-loaded bombs at Cambodia. Thailand has in return accused Cambodia of moving civilians as human shields into militarized areas.
The United States has good relations with both countries' armed forces and has refrained from openly intervening in the conflict. Thailand is a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization military ally of the United States and is bigger, wealthier and better armed than Cambodia, but Cambodian soldiers are considered tougher fighters on the ground.
Cambodia's military leaders include Hun Manet, who received his diploma in 1999 from the US Military Academy at West Point. Two-star Lieutenant General Hun Manet is deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces infantry and director of the Defense Ministry's US-backed counter-terrorism department.
He is the eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was a Khmer Rouge guerrilla regiment commander under Pol Pot when they successfully fought against the US-backed Cambodian General Lon Nol's regime in the early 1970s during the US's regional Vietnam War.
Thailand is peeved by Cambodia's plan to bring tourists to the scenic stone ruins of Preah Vihear's cliff-top, the 11th century Hindu temple on the disputed border. Preah Vihear was part of a network of ancient temple sites linked to Cambodia's nearby slave-built Angkor Wat complex.
In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization-endorsed Cambodia's bid to grant the temple World Heritage status. That could turn Preah Vihear into a money-making tourist attraction for Cambodia, especially when the Cambodians modernize a path up their steep cliff as an alternative entrance to the temple, which currently has its main access across flatter disputed territory.
The fresh clashes meanwhile coincide with fears expressed by Thailand's media and opposition politicians that Bangkok's coup-minded military is preparing a putsch to install a puppet regime because the generals fear a possible return of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted Thaksin in a bloodless 2006 coup.
Thaksin has based himself mostly in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to avoid a two-year jail sentence for corruption during his five-year elected administration. Diplomatic feathers were ruffled when Hun Sen appointed him as a special economic advisor, a position Thaksin later dropped.
One year ago, tens of thousands of Thaksin's "red-shirt" supporters staged a nine-week insurrection in Bangkok by barricading streets in the heart of the capital, while demanding immediate elections to bring back Thaksin.
After devastating urban battles, the red shirts were crushed by the army, resulting in 91 deaths, most of them civilians. Several red shirt leaders, including those who face potential terrorism charges, fled to Cambodia.
Abhisit, who took office in a parliamentary vote in December 2008, has enjoyed strong military support while allowing the generals to arrange costly and controversial large-scale weapons purchases, including a dozen Swedish Gripen warplanes, six used German submarines, Ukrainian armored personnel carriers, and other weaponry.
Abhisit has said he hopes to stage nationwide elections in June or July, but it is not clear to many analysts whether the military agrees with the plan due to its concerns that a pro-Thaksin government could be elected.