PHANOM DONG RAK: Guns were silent along the Thai-Cambodia border Monday after three days of bloody jungle clashes between rival troops, as a top regional envoy prepared to hold talks to cool one of the deadliest border standoffs in two decades.
Indonesian Foreign Minister and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair Marty Natalegawa will meet with his Thai and Cambodian counterparts Monday to push for a ceasefire following the collapse of a United Nations-backed peace deal he helped broker after fierce fighting in February.
The move comes after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged “serious dialogue” to hammer out an “effective and verifiable” ceasefire and halt the grenade and artillery bombardments that have killed at least 10 soldiers since Friday.
At the center of the latest dispute are two 12th-Century stone-walled Hindu temples, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey, in a heavily mined jungle area that both sides lay claim to. Thailand says the two temples are in its Surin province but Cambodia insists the ancient ruins fall in its territory.
The two sides battled for more than three hours from late Sunday morning and pounded each other with mortars and artillery, sending hundreds of villagers fleeing or into hiding in makeshift bomb shelters.
The dispute over jurisdiction has been ongoing since the 1950s, when colonial power France pulled out of Cambodia. Exactly why the two countries are in conflict now remains a mystery and many analysts believe either side could be stoking the unrest for domestic political gain.
Thailand's Foreign Ministry issued a statement late on Sunday accusing Cambodia of firing heavy weapons to pave the way for an attempted invasion by ground troops into Thai territory to “seize and take control” of Ta Moan.
It said Thailand responded proportionally after its troops and nearby villages came under attack, a similar claim made by Cambodia, which accused Thailand of trying to force it into bilateral talks.
Cambodia wants third-party mediation from ASEAN to end the hostilities and says Thailand should honor an agreement it made in February to allow unarmed military observers from Indonesia to monitor a ceasefire.
“This is something we clearly want to see. Without a third-party observer, we will just point fingers at each other about who fired first,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said.
The fighting broke a fragile peace deal agreed after 11 troops and scores of civilians were wounded in February 4-7 clashes 150 km (93 miles) away near Preah Vihear, another temple both sides have long fought for on the battlefield and in the courts.
An international court ruling awarded Preah Vihear to Cambodia in 1962 but Thailand has tried to thwart its attempt to list the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it still lays claim to the 4.6-sq-km of scrub around it.
In Ban Nongkana, 7 kilometres from Ta Moan, villagers scurried for cover Sunday as mortars fell for a third day. Soldiers carried the elderly to safety as villagers bundled belongings into pickup trucks and fled.
“We thought this was over, but we're hearing the explosions getting louder. We're scared, we want this to end now,” said Boonyang Batjaiyatkare, 26, one of more than 20 people huddled together in a newly dug bunker.
On the surface, the renewed fighting appears to be a dispute over sovereignty but many experts are sceptical and suggest either government may have started the clashes to discredit the other or to appeal to nationalists at home.
The conflict could boost support for Thailand's government ahead of an election due in July or coversely, it could scuttle the poll, which would benefit politically connected nationalists who have been campaigning for a boycott. AGENCIES