At the latest yellowshirt demonstration in Bangkok (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Artillery fire across remote jungles and ancient temples continued on Friday, along the Thailand-Cambodia border, breaking a tentative ceasefire put in place the day before.

One Thai soldier was killed, bringing the death toll to sixteen since the crossfire started. As has been the case throughout, both sides blame each other for shooting first.

The apparent cause of the fighting is a few old temples along the border, which are either claimed by both sides, or have disputed patches of land around the holy sites. A 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice put Preah Vihear, a hillside Hindu temple built by a Khmer dynasty in the 11th century, inside Cambodia

But Thailand says that a 4.6 kilometer-square patch of land around that temple has not been demarcated properly, so a 2008 decision by UNESCO to deem Preah Vihear a World Heritage Site angered Thai nationalists.

Thousands took to the streets of Bangkok to protest, but their real target was the then Thai Government, which was backed by Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a former Prime Minister ousted in 2006 by a military coup.

Yellowshirts, as the protestors were known, due to their attire, saw the administrations linked to Thaksin as a threat to the country’s monarchy, and used the UNESCO decision as a pretext to protest.

And now domestic politics could be fuelling the fighting on the border as well. The Thai Army has been assertive in recent weeks in Thailand’s domestic politics, accusing opposition politicians of insulting the country’s King – a taboo in Thailand. An election is due in Thailand around July, but the lese-majeste charges and border fighting have stirred rumours that another coup is imminent.

The party linked to Thaksin, who has lived outside Thailand since 2008 after being hit with corruption charges, could win the election, an outcome that royalists in Thailand would not welcome. One of Thailand election commissioners admitted last week that fighting with Cambodia could mean the election will be postponed.

Thai politics are deeply divided, after last year’s Thaksin-backed redshirt protests in Bangkok resulted in 91 deaths, mostly civilians, and culminated in the Thai Army overrunning the protest site in the heart of city, after a 2 month standoff. No investigation into or explanation for the bloodshed has been forthcoming to date, from the Thai Government, or anyone else.

Cambodia was accused of breaking the truce on Friday, which it denied, and the Cambodian Government has perhaps reasons of its own to stir things up at the border. Anti-Thai sentiment is is used from time to time, as a way for Cambodia’s elites to burnish their nationalist credentials. Prime Minster Hun Sen recently promoted his 33 year old son to a senior army position, and within Cambodia, there have been public protests over forced evictions, with residents around a Phnom Penh lake being driven out to make way for a Chinese-backed property development project.

The fighting is something of an embarrassment for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, the ten member regional bloc of which both countries are a member. Indonesia, the biggest country in the region and currently the Chair of ASEAN, has sought to mediate, even offering to send observers to the contested area. Cambodia, by far the smaller economy and military, welcomed the internationalisation of the row, but Thailand wants to keep things on a bilateral level.

ASEAN has its first summit of 2011 in Jakarta next week, and the group’s attempts to forge a more integrated EU-style bloc by 2015 are facing a harsh dose of reality, as two neighbours verge on an outright border war.

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Surin, Thailand.

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