Exchange of fire across disputed Cambodia-Thai border leads to call for UN peacekeepers
(8 February 2011)
Troops stationed on either side of a disputed section of the Cambodia-Thailand border have exchanged gun fire for four consecutive days, from 4-8 February 2011. The recent conflict has occurred around the site of the Preah Vihear temple, located atop a steep cliff along an undefined stretch of the Cambodia-Thailand boundary. The Temple was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962 but the boundary around the complex has never been agreed by the neighbouring states. Tensions have been on-going since 2008 when Cambodia requested the Temple of Preah Vihear and surrounding grounds be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Both sides dispatched troops to the 4.6 sq km area around the Temple where the boundary has never been agreed or marked on the ground. Situated in such close proximity, the opposing military forces had maintained a relatively calm situation since the 2008 deployment with just a few minor skirmishes. However, this recent exchange of artillery and machine gun fire over the past four days represents the most significant fighting in many years. Preliminary reports suggest that five Cambodians and three Thais have been killed, both troops and civilians, with several more being injured. Another Thai soldier died on Tuesday from injuries sustained in the fighting. It remains unclear what events sparked the most recent conflict, with both the Cambodian and Thai governments providing differing reasons. Cambodia has claimed it began firing after Thai troops had crossed the border to retrieve a dead soldier. On Monday 7 February, the Cambodian Army evacuated surrounding villages, while reports suggest villagers in Thailand have fled.
The Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has requested that the United Nations (UN) deploy peacekeepers to the region to act as a buffer between the two nations’ troops. Thailand has reportedly denied the need for UN intervention, repeating its position that the dispute is a bilateral issue. Several member states of ASEAN, along with the UN have urged the two nations to continue talks and resolve the issue peacefully. Cambodian sources claim that the 11th century temple has sustained damage from Thai artillery fire, although this remains unconfirmed, and Thailand has dismissed the statement as propaganda. The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stated in a press release on 8 February that a mission will be sent as soon as possible to assess any damage to the temple. Recently Cambodia removed a plaque from the temple, which read “This is Cambodia”, having drawn criticism from Thailand, though a Cambodian flag remains raised at the temple.
A ruling on 1 February 2011 by a Cambodian court, which sentenced two Thai nationalists to jail for up to eight years for crossing in to Cambodian territory, has further exacerbated tensions in the disputed border region. They were charged with illegal entry after crossing the disputed border region on December 29 with several others, believed to be Thai politicians and activists. In the lead up to domestic Thai elections later this year, nationalist groups there have pressured the government to take a stronger stance on the issue.
Source: ‘Cambodia finds two Thai nationalists guilty of spying’, BBC News, 1 February 2011, ‘Cambodia calls for UN buffer zone at Thai border’, BBC News, 7 February 2011; ‘Thai and Cambodian clashes resume at disputed border’, Associated Press, 7 February 2011; ‘Thai and Cambodian Troops Clash’, Reuters, 7 February 2011; ‘Cambodians are evacuated in temple feud with Thais’, Seth Mydans, New York Times, February 7 2011; ‘Thai-Cambodian border quiet after deadly clashes’, Tang Chhin Sothy, Agence France Presse, February 8 2011; ‘UNESCO to send mission to Preah Vihear’, UNESCO, 8 February 2011.