Wednesday, 4 May 2011

New fighting on Cambodian-Thai border brings death toll to 18

A Cambodian soldier sits near that Cambodia-Thailand border in late April

A Thai soldier was killed in renewed fighting with Cambodian troops on late Monday, 2nd May or early Tuesday, 3rd May, bringing the death toll from the border dispute of the two south Asian neighbours to 18.

The fighting began on 22nd April in the border region around two disputed temples, named Ta Kwai and Ta Muen in Thai and Ta Krabey and Ta Moan in Khmer. On 26th April, the fighting spread to spread to the highly controversial Preah Vihear temple, which lies about 150km to the east.

Much of the border between Thailand and Cambodia has never been demarcated, due to disputes and the prevalence of land mines, which makes demarcation difficult. Thailand says the 12th century Ta Kwai and Ta Muen temples are situated in its Surin province, according to a 1947 map. Cambodia argues that they are in its Oddar Meanchey province. Until hostilities broke out 12 days ago, the area was jointly patrolled, largely without incident.

Tension has been high between the countries since 2008, but it has been related to Preah Vihear temple. UNESCO awarded the temple World Heritage Status in 2008, under Cambodian jurisdiction. Thailand accepts that the temple itself is in Cambodian territory, as an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling dictated in 1962, but it claims much of the territory around the temple. As such, it wanted the temple to be jointly listed. In particular, there is a 4.6 square kilometer area that is disputed.

Clashes broke out in February between the two sides, which led to 10 deaths and to Preah Vihear being slightly damaged. Exactly what led to the violence at the two temples in April is not clear, although predictably both sides have blamed each other.

Many analysts see political manoeuvring as being behind the violence, and both governments in the past have resorted to stoking nationalist fervour to deflect attention away from domestic political problems.

Thailand, for example, is expected to hold an election in July, and the government is worried about looking weak in its relations with Cambodia. Some analysts have suggested that the clashes may be a pretext for Thai generals, allied with ultra-nationals, to stage a coup to prevent the elections from taking place.

International condemnation of the violence was quick to come. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a ceasefire and said the neighbours should undertake 'serious dialogue' to resolve the dispute. Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who is currently head of ASEAN and has been heavily involved in the Thailand-Cambodia dispute since the February clashes, also called for a ceasfire. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urged both sides to exercise restraint and to take immediate steps to defuse the tension.

Despite both sides agreeing to a cease-fire on Thursday, 28th April, clashes have yet to stop, although they have decreased from their early intensity. Both sides said the other first broke the ceasefire, and they have both considerably increased their military presence in the border region.

Cambodia has consistently appealed for international mediation for the border disputes, but Thailand maintains they can be solved through bilateral dialogue. On Friday, 29th April, Cambodia announced that it had asked the ICJ to clarify its 1962 ruling. It also requested provisional measures, including the removal of Thai forces from the temple area.

Indonesia has tried to facilitate talks and to send military observers to the border. Thailand has, however, delayed the Indonesian observers, and it seems likely that this is what prompted Cambodia's ICJ appeal.

Some 100,000 people were forced to flee the border areas due to the clash, however many have started to return. Eight Thai troops, one Thai civilian and nine Cambodian soldiers have been killed, and some homes have been damaged on both sides.

Thailand recently admitted to using internationally–banned cluster munitions in the fighting in February. Cambodia's Defence Ministry said that in the most recent clashes, Thailand has used shells 'loaded with poisonous gas', a claim Thailand has denied. Cambodia has also said that Thailand has fired artillery shells on civilian villages.

Sources: BBC News, Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times, RTE, AFP, Al Jazeera, Seattle Times

For more information, please see the Menas Borders website, here.

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