Thailand, Cambodia Spat Gets Ugly

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Thailand, Cambodia Spat Gets Ugly

Domestic politics could be pushing leaders of the two countries to more intense conflict as thousands flee border fighting.

PRASAT, THAILAND — It was a typical night for Wanchai Jongkot and his family. After working all day in the paddy fields, he sat down with his wife and two daughters to eat dinner – the main meal in his household. Before he could take his first bite, flashes illuminated the night sky, followed by deafening explosions.

‘We had no idea what was going on, we just ran to take cover,’ says Jongkot, a wiry man in his late 50s. ‘We were so shocked we almost fainted.’

In the midst of the bombardment the eldest daughter saw her sister rolling in agony and yelled out that she had been hit. When the fighting had subsided, they took the injured daughter to the local hospital where they discovered she had a broken arm and hip.

Jongkot and his family are some of around 80,000 civilians who have been affected on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border by recent clashes between the two nations.

The latest conflict is the most serious fighting in decades and stems from a demarcation carried out in the 1950s by an international court, which awarded Cambodia the land. Thailand continues to disputes this ruling.

The effects of the fighting can been seen all over Gaab Cherng district in Surin Province. As fighting has escalated over the last seven days, both sides have been firing heavy artillery into each other’s territory, littering empty shells indiscriminately into civilian areas.

Wedged in a plank of wood at the back of the Jongkot’s house lies the stray BM21 rocket that has destroyed their home. Pieces of timber lie smashed amidst shared ceramic tiles. The only thing that remains intact is a picture of the revered King.

Lying in a hospital bed at Prasat local hospital, the 15-year-old daughter, Jeeranan, grimaces in pain. Accompanied by a teddy bear, and hair tied up in ponytails, she looks younger than she is. ‘The doctor says her bone is completely smashed,’ her mother says looking over at her, clearly distressed by the news. ‘We don’t want to go back to our village while bombs are flying over like this.’

The same sentiment is echoed throughout the more than 20 temporary camps along the border, populated by refugees evacuated from their homes. Sleeping on straw mats in crowded conditions and surviving on donations it’s not clear how much longer they can tolerate the fighting.

‘We’ve been okay so far,’ says an elderly lady as she finishes her food. ‘But I miss my home and worried for my property. We all hope it ends soon.’

Hope for an end to the conflict faded early Friday morning, when more fighting broke out, killing a Thai soldier and bringing the official tota; death toll for Thailand and Cambodia to 16. The latest clash occurred after a supposed ceasefire had been agreed between the two nations on Thursday morning. 

High-level commanders of the two nations were reported to have agreed to stop all military activity and were supposed to open borders for displaced people to travel home. Both side’s commanders have blamed the other’s local units for not following orders.

Fighting is reported to have started again early Saturday morning.

With no international observers on the frontline, the conflict is slowly turning into a war of words, with a raging blame game taking place.

‘They want to take over our land, there are no Cambodian soldiers in Thailand, but they keep coming onto our land, plain and simple,’ Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told me Friday. ‘Our soldiers are inside Cambodian land, if they fire into our land only then will we fire back.’

During a surprise visit to Koke Klang temporary refugee camp – home to more than 3,000 villagers who have escaped the fighting – Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told refugees and reporters that it was Cambodia’s fault the fighting continues. He said Thailand was ready to talk with Cambodia, but he added that if they continue to attack Thailand it will be impossible to make any progress.

Making some of his first comments on the conflict, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, said in a speech to a women's group on Wednesday that Abhisit was to blame.

‘The current Thai leader likes war, provokes war,’ he said. ‘Cambodia is a small, poor country and has fewer forces, but don't you forget that an ant can make an elephant not get any sleep…Cambodian's weaponry is not just slingshots.’

Relations first frosted over the border demarcation in 2008 when a temple – 150 kilometres (90 miles) east of the current conflict – was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Thailand says that although the land was awarded to Cambodia by the international court, the temples were never properly discussed.

Conflict erupted at Preah Vihear temple in February 4-7 this year, killing 11 people.

While it could appear to be a simple conflict over sovereignty, experts and civilians on both sides of the border are beginning to blame domestic politics for the ongoing conflict.

In Cambodia, some believe Hun Sen is attempting to wield nationalist sentiment to gain support for his son, who he is grooming to eventually take over control of the country. It’s also believed that he could be attempting to discredit Abhisit and so boost support for opposition parties in the forthcoming elections. Hun Sen has often publicly voiced his support for the Puea Thai party and Red Shirts.

According to Michael Montesano of the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore, the temple dispute all came about as a result of ‘cheap politics’ by the People’s Alliance for Democracy – otherwise known as the Yellow Shirts – in 2008 to reduce support for then Prime Minister Shinawatra Thaksin.

‘This whole episode in a sense is the tail that the dog of Thailand is waging, and the dog of Thai domestic politics is not going to calm down any time soon so that is the problem here,’ says.

In a move that’s likely to irk Bangkok even more, Cambodia announced on Friday it would be seeking clarification from the International Court of Justice over the demarcation of Preear Vihear temple.

Cambodia said a clarification by the court was of ‘the utmost necessity… in order to peacefully and definitely settle the boundary problem between the two countries in the area.’

Previously, the country had turned to ASEAN and asked for international mediation to deal with issue. It’s rumoured that Abhisit has been leaning towards accepting Cambodia’s proposal, but the Thai military has been reluctant to accept, adding to speculation they are prolonging the war in order to establish their legitimacy.

‘It’s very clear that the army and its backers are nervous about the overall political situation in Thailand, nervous about mounting criticism of the monarchy, nervous about Thaksin’s return to political activity, nervous about the outcome of the upcoming election,’ Montesano says.

‘This is one more way that the army and its backers are asserting themselves.’

Adding to concerns that the conflict will escalate further, Prawit Wongsuwon, Thailand's defence minister, cancelled a meeting with Cambodian counterpart Tea Banh on Wednesday.

While leaders quarrel over statements, fighting continues to rage in once sleepy Surin. Both armies are digging in – new rocket launchers have reportedly been deployed on the Cambodian side, and fresh tanks on the Thai side. With little progress diplomatically or military, few expect the problems to be resolved anytime soon.

At the border, villager parliamentary groups are getting ready to defend their villages. Bunkers are being built and weapons collected as the Thai military gives sporadic training.

‘We don’t war, but if they come near our village I will defend my land,’ says Khun Kung, a farmer in the area.

In the meantime, those who have fled the villages, caught in the middle of the conflict, continue to suffer while seemingly murky political battles rage on both sides.

‘The government of both countries should resolve the problems immediately,’ says Jongkot looking over his destroyed home. ‘We want our country in peace because now we’re losing everything we have.’

William Lloyd-George is a freelance journalist based on the Thai-Burma border. His work has appeared in TIME, The Independent, Bangkok Post, Afternposten, Irrawaddy and Global Post among others.