Another border skirmish took place yesterday between Thai and Cambodian troops. Reports are, as ever, contradictory and inconclusive but it seems that two Cambodian soldiers were killed, five Thais wounded and some soldiers captured by the other side (I have seen this described as Cambodians captured and Thais captured – not sure which is which). Now reinforcements are being rushed to the area, including more heavy artillery. Jet fighters are on standby in Thailand and presumably the same is true in Cambodia.
The Phnom Penh Post adds that a Thai helicopter opened fire on Cambodian troops who responded with anti-aircraft weapons.
The reason why the troops are in the area at all and prepared for fighting is because of the Preah Vihear temple. This Khmer-built temple belongs to Cambodia (according to internationally binding legal decisions as well as history and tradition) but access is only really possible from the Thai side. Ownership has been disputed off and on over the years and tension breaks out from time to time, usually when someone has some reason to call for a nationalist response.
In recent months, the ringleaders of the extreme right-wing PAD mob have been stirring up nationalist sentiment by claiming that the temple belongs to Thailand, should be seized and other inflammatory, cynical lies. Two Thai soldiers subsequently lost legs in landmine explosions – yet more blood on the hands of the Pad mob leaders.
This week, Cambodian PM Hun Sen, usually described as something of a ‘strong man,’ suddenly upped the ante by declaring that Thai troops must withdraw within 24 hours or else his troops would turn the area into a ‘battle zone of death.’ Quite why he escalated the tension (and hence yesterday’s fighting) is not clear. People are assuming there is some internal reason which is not clear to outsiders and that means, by definition, we don’t know what it is.
The Thai government has instructed Thai people involved in non-essential activities to return home and hundreds of gamblers in the semi-legal border casinos have been returning, carrying their winnings or their losses prematurely declared.
The region is being described as calm at the moment. It goes without saying, of course, that both sides blame each other.