Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has asked for a U.N. ‘buffer zone’ at the disputed 11th century temple where fighting is in its fourth day and at least five people have died. Thai officials deny ‘bullying an inferior neighbor.’ Both sides say the other shot first.
By Simon Roughneen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand — Cambodia asked U.N. peacekeepers on Monday to intervene and help end fighting along the Thai-Cambodia border following a fourth day of gunfire that had killed at least five people near a disputed 11th century temple.
The wrangling over the 2-square-mile complex, a World Heritage site, has fueled fears of a protracted border conflict between the wary neighbors.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen requested a U.N. “buffer zone,” adding that the conflict threatened regional stability as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint.
But Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand, the regional powerhouse, resisted U.N. intervention or a mediation offer by the 10-member Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, calling instead for direct negotiations.
Some 15,000 Thai villagers have fled the area since the fighting started. Both sides accuse the other of shooting first while insisting they acted in self-defense. Abhisit said Sunday his government wanted a peaceful resolution but added, “If our sovereignty is violated, we have to protect it.”
Thailand, with a population of 66 million and annual economic output of $312 billion, dwarfs Cambodia’s 15 million population and $11-billion economy.
Thai officials have denied suggestions they’re intimidating the weaker, war-wracked Cambodia. “We are afraid of rumors that we are bullying an inferior neighbor because we have superior capabilities,” Thai Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd told a local Thai TV station, before vowing in separate comments Monday to carry out “tit-for-tat” attacks against Cambodian provocation.
The dispute involves a picturesque, crumbling Hindu temple, known as Preah Vihear in Khmer, or Prasat Khao Phra Viharn in Thai, built between the 9th and 11th centuries by the same Khmer dynasty that built Angkor Wat.
Demarcation has long been controversial as borders have fluctuated over the centuries. In 1962, the International Court of Justice put the temple inside Cambodia. But Thai nationalists dispute the decision, with tensions intensifying after the religious complex received World Heritage site status in 2008.
Analysts said hard-liners had seized on the issue in recent days to score political points. “With arch-nationalists influencing public policy on both sides of the border, the danger of intensified frontier friction is very real,” said Paul Chambers, a research fellow at Germany’s Heidelberg University.
Cambodians are wary of any policy involving Thailand that makes them appear weak, and Hun Sen has used anti-Thai nationalism to consolidate political power.
On the Thai side, two nationalists, including a lawmaker, were convicted in January of spying and illegally entering Cambodia near the disputed area. That prompted pro-monarchy “yellow-shirt” demonstrators to hit the Bangkok streets in recent days calling for their release.
Hun Sen said Monday the dispute was sparked by Thai soldiers crossing the border in search of a slain comrade near the structure, prompting Cambodians to open fire to repel them.
Cambodian officials said Thai artillery collapsed part of a wing at the temple, but Thais deny this as propaganda. UNESCO has termed it an “outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture.”
Roughneen is a special correspondent.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times
– Extra from original copy
Yellowshirts engaged in mass protests against former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, leading to a military coup that ousted Thaksin. In 2008, Yellowshirts helped propel Abhisit to power, occupying the seat of Government in Bangkok, and then the country’s international airport, in an attempt to cripple a pro-Thaksin administration then in office. This 2008 protest was justified in part by the UNESCO decision on Preah Vihear.
The fallout from those events reverberates. In the run-up to the violent 2010 anti-Abhisit “redshirt” protests in Bangkok – which the redshirts justified as a counter to the yellow protests of 2008 – Thaksin was appointed an “economic advisor” by Hun Sen, who controversially compared Mr Thaksin to Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. A redshirt-linked group is now calling for a demonstration later this week, opposing any conflict with Cambodia, where leading redshirts are said to be in hiding after fleeing the May 19 Thai Army crackdown on the redshirt protests last year.Show