Thai-Cambodian Border Spat Heats Up

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Rungroj Yongrit / EPA

Thai soldiers take position after clashes with Cambodian soldiers at the disputed border area of the Preah Vihear temple, Si Sa Ket province, Thailand, 15 October 2008

Gunfire crackled across the border between Thailand and Cambodia on October 15, reigniting tensions between the two Southeast Asian nations over a disputed swathe of land near an ancient Hindu temple. For days, troops from both countries have flooded the area near the Preah Vihar temple, and each side claims the other fired Wednesday's first shot.

The border dispute erupted in July after UNESCO awarded world-heritage status to the 900-year-old temple. It was built by ancient Khmers, the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia, who also constructed the famous Angkor Wat complex. Although the U.N. agency accepted Cambodia's sole claim of the site, Thailand believes that a stretch of land that is used to access the temple is rightfully its own. In 1962 the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple was in Cambodian territory, but it sidestepped the issue of the access route. For weeks in July and August, hundreds of soldiers faced off along the jungle border, occasionally taking potshots at each other, before talks between the two nations resulted in a troop withdrawal. Diplomatic overtures resumed this month but ended in a stalemate on October 13.

Both countries have used the temple row for political purposes. In his successful re-election bid this summer, Cambodian Premier Hun Sen vowed to protect national interests by ensuring that the entire Preah Vihar area remained under Cambodian control. Meanwhile, in Thailand, opposition figures accused former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of destroying national sovereignty by not immediately protesting UNESCO's decision. Samak resigned last month, and his successor, who hails from the same political party, will surely be accused of similar weakness if Thailand's troops don't match Cambodian numbers. On Wednesday, Thailand's military T.V. network showed Thai tanks rumbling toward the border region, and one officer has said the country is prepared for war.

With tensions flaring, Thailand's Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat urged Thai citizens in Cambodia to leave immediately. The Thai Foreign Ministry has said it may airlift out Thai nationals, should they have trouble exiting Cambodia. For his part, Hun Sen has already vowed to make the Preah Vihar region a "death zone" if the Thai army doesn't back down. Given the historic enmities between the Khmer and Siamese empires, threats of violence aren't easily ignored. After all, the modern-day town near the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex is called Siem Reap, which in Khmer means "Siam defeated."

(Click here for photos of recent clashes in Thailand.)