A thousand year old temple on the Thailand-Cambodia border is in the firing line as soldiers from both countries square-off over a tiny, disputed patch of land around the building.
Preah Vihear was built as a Hindu temple by Khmer rulers between the 9th and 11th centuries, and according to a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice, belongs to Cambodia. However a 1.8 square mile area of land around the compound is contested, and the latest flare-up, which cost the lives of at least five soldiers, was the latest skirmish since UNESCO deemed the temple a World Heritage site in 2008.
That judgement inflamed Thai nationalists, which they used to justify street protests in Bangkok, trying to oust a Government backed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
By the end of that year, the protestors, known as yellowshirts for their distinctive attire, which mimics the Thai royal standard, managed to oust their rivals from Government, by way of a series of court rulings coming after they had occupied the Thai parliament and the international airport.
Now, however the yellows have turned on the man who they helped into office, Thailand’s current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, accusing him of being soft on Cambodia.
Last month, seven yellowshirts were arrested by Cambodian soldiers for allegedly crossing into Cambodian territory close to the temple.
Tensions rose, and finally exploded last weekend as gun and artillery fire was exchanged across the frontier.
Foreign ministers from both countries gave their side of the story to the UN Security Council over the past week, but, as both flew home on Tuesday, their armies exchanged more fire at the temple, and again both accused each other of shooting first
The UN ruled out sending peacekeepers, as requested by Cambodia, which wants to internationalise the row. Thailand, with a population five times that of its neighbour, and an economy 23 times as big, wants to keep negotiations on a bilateral level.
With an election due in politically-unstable Thailand sometime this year, perhaps Prime Minister Abhisit does not want to appear soft on national security, with the ever-present rumours of a coup doing the rounds. The last military takeover was in 2006, and in total there have been 18 coups or coup attempts since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
Cambodia’s rulers too have often pointed to Thailand’s alleged arrogance when it suits, in a region where over the centuries, empires, kingdoms and dynasties have come and gone, and borders have fluctuated.
There are other, more recent, sore points between the two countries, showing how domestic politics and international relations are blurred here. In late 2009, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen invited former Thai counterpart Thaksin to Pnomh Penh, offering him a role as an “economic advisor” to his Government.
Thaksin faces corruption charges and a two year jail term in Thailand, and some of his assets have been frozen there, so the offer by Hun Sen angered the Thai Government.
But not all Thais. A few months later, Thaksin supporters opposed to the current Thai Government camped out in the heart of Bangkok, closing off a major shopping area for almost 2 months. The redshirts, as they are known, were finally removed on May 19 last year, amid gunfire and grenade explosions. Over 90 died and around 2000 were injured durung the protest. Some of the redshirt leaders are thought to have fled into Cambodia, and whether or not this is true, tensions between the two sides remain high.
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Bangkok.Show