Thailand, Cambodia edge toward
war By Richard Ehrlich
BANGKOK - Thailand and Cambodia fortified
their border positions on Tuesday after four days
of artillery and mortar battles killed seven
Cambodian soldiers and five Thai troops, while
both sides tried to dominate nearby ancient Hindu
temple ruins. No deaths were reported during
Thai troops with scant
medical equipment used stretchers and open pickup
trucks to transport some injured soldiers from
border fights to hospitalization during the
weekend. Thailand moved tanks and armored
personnel carriers along the mountainous jungle
frontier about 560 kilometers northeast of
Cambodia installed more
multiple-rocket launchers and other
heavy weaponry to bolster its
side. Phnom Penh said on Monday that shelling and
rifle fire by Thai forces during the weekend
damaged the crumbling stone ruins of two small
1,000-year-old Hindu temples, Ta Krabey and Ta
Moan. The extent of the damage was unclear.
The ruins are in a disputed border area
where most of the four straight days of clashes
have occurred. Both Buddhist-majority countries
again used artillery, mortars and rifles on Monday
night near Ta Krabey, according to Thai and
Cambodian military spokesmen.
Cambodian acts of aggression left Thailand with no
choice but to defend its sovereignty and
territorial integrity by using proportionate means
with necessity, under international law, and
strictly directed at only military targets," the
Thai Foreign Ministry said on Sunday.
About 20,000 villagers on each side of the
frontier have fled to makeshift shelters, while
camouflaged Thai and Cambodian troops continue to
patrol the jungle. The clashes were not expected
to escalate immediately into full-scale war
between Thailand and Cambodia, but the fighting
has shut cross-border trade and caused jitters in
both Southeast Asian capitals.
Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the
10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) - of which both Thailand and Cambodia are
members - have called on the countries to arrange
a ceasefire, but the Thai military said it was
fighting to stop Cambodia's attempt to seize the
Ta Krabey and Ta Moan temple ruins.
Cambodia wants to expand upon its 1962
success when the International Court of Justice in
the Hague awarded Cambodia ownership over larger
stone temple ruins at Preah Vihear, about 201
kilometers to the east of the current fighting,
the Thai army said.
"There must not be
Cambodian soldiers around Preah Vihear, other
temples, and communities," Thai army commander
General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday.
"Cambodia would have seized the area, as
they did in the areas near Preah Vihear temple,"
Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said on
Sunday. "So letting problems occur today is better
than seeing it turn chronic in the future," he
said, explaining why Thai forces were defending
the two smaller temples and nearby disputed
Both sides have repeatedly
blamed the other for being the aggressor and
firing first. In February, four days of fighting
near Preah Vihear killed a total of 10 soldiers on
both sides before hostilities quieted.
Cambodia wants to internationalize the
problem and called on the United Nations and
Indonesia to mediate. Thailand has said it prefers
to negotiate through bilateral rather than
Minister Marty Natalegawa, in his role as current
chair of ASEAN, postponed his scheduled trip on
Monday to Cambodia and Thailand after Bangkok
tried to limit Indonesia's efforts to send
military observers to the disputed border where
recent fighting occurred.
weekend, Cambodia said Thai forces fired 75mm and
105mm shells "loaded with poison gas", but no
evidence was provided and Bangkok denied the
allegation. In February, Bangkok denied using
cluster bombs but later reluctantly admitted to
firing several cluster-loaded bombs at Cambodia.
Thailand has in return accused Cambodia of moving
civilians as human shields into militarized areas.
The United States has good relations with
both countries' armed forces and has refrained
from openly intervening in the conflict. Thailand
is a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization
military ally of the United States and is bigger,
wealthier and better armed than Cambodia, but
Cambodian soldiers are considered tougher fighters
on the ground.
Cambodia's military leaders
include Hun Manet, who received his diploma in
1999 from the US Military Academy at West Point.
Two-star Lieutenant General Hun Manet is deputy
commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces
infantry and director of the Defense Ministry's
US-backed counter-terrorism department.
is the eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun
Sen, who was a Khmer Rouge guerrilla regiment
commander under Pol Pot when they successfully
fought against the US-backed Cambodian General Lon
Nol's regime in the early 1970s during the US's
regional Vietnam War.
Thailand is peeved
by Cambodia's plan to bring tourists to the scenic
stone ruins of Preah Vihear's cliff-top, the 11th
century Hindu temple on the disputed border. Preah
Vihear was part of a network of ancient temple
sites linked to Cambodia's nearby slave-built
Angkor Wat complex.
In 2008, the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization-endorsed Cambodia's bid to grant the
temple World Heritage status. That could turn
Preah Vihear into a money-making tourist
attraction for Cambodia, especially when the
Cambodians modernize a path up their steep cliff
as an alternative entrance to the temple, which
currently has its main access across flatter
The fresh clashes
meanwhile coincide with fears expressed by
Thailand's media and opposition politicians that
Bangkok's coup-minded military is preparing a
putsch to install a puppet regime because the
generals fear a possible return of former prime
minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted
Thaksin in a bloodless 2006 coup.
has based himself mostly in Dubai in the United
Arab Emirates to avoid a two-year jail sentence
for corruption during his five-year elected
administration. Diplomatic feathers were ruffled
when Hun Sen appointed him as a special economic
advisor, a position Thaksin later dropped.
One year ago, tens of thousands of
Thaksin's "red-shirt" supporters staged a
nine-week insurrection in Bangkok by barricading
streets in the heart of the capital, while
demanding immediate elections to bring back
After devastating urban battles,
the red shirts were crushed by the army, resulting
in 91 deaths, most of them civilians. Several red
shirt leaders, including those who face potential
terrorism charges, fled to Cambodia.
Abhisit, who took office in a
parliamentary vote in December 2008, has enjoyed
strong military support while allowing the
generals to arrange costly and controversial
large-scale weapons purchases, including a dozen
Swedish Gripen warplanes, six used German
submarines, Ukrainian armored personnel carriers,
and other weaponry.
Abhisit has said he
hopes to stage nationwide elections in June or
July, but it is not clear to many analysts whether
the military agrees with the plan due to its
concerns that a pro-Thaksin government could be
Richard S Ehrlich is a
Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California. He has reported news from Asia since
1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of
investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big
Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their
Revealing Interviews. His website is