Trying to Calm Cambodia-Thailand Temple Dispute

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Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty Images

A Cambodian soldier watches arrested Thai soldiers (below) at a pagoda near Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province on October 15, 2008

There seemed to be only two types of traffic on the roads of Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia this week: villagers fleeing with their worldly belongings stacked in pick-up trucks, and Cambodian soldiers heading in to fight.

Thai and Cambodian forces clashed for more than an hour on Oct. 15 in the disputed border territory around the 11th Century Preah Vihear temple. The fighting left three Cambodian soldiers dead and several Thai troops injured.

Fears of a full-scale war have been put on hold for now. Military commanders from both sides met in Thailand on Oct. 16, to try to cool hostilities. But while the talks produced plenty of words of reconciliation, troops from both countries are busy digging in around Preah Vihear.

On the Cambodian side, trenches and foxholes now pepper the approach road to the mountaintop temple. Soldiers have dug a mortar bunker a stone's throw from the second-level of the beautiful stone Hindu temple complex.

In Sre Am village, around 19 miles (30 km) from Preah Vihear mountain, hundreds of young troops from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's elite bodyguard unit have set up base, backed by armored personnel carriers and truck-mounted Katyusha rocket launchers. On the Thai side, even as the peace talks were in progress, two Thai fighter jets buzzed around just over the border but in plain view of the Cambodian troops at the temple.

Cambodia and Thailand have wrestled over the temple for years. The immediate spark for this week's clashes was Cambodia's successful listing of Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage Site earlier this year. Many Thais were angry that Cambodia had unilaterally listed the temple, which they also consider sacred. Thai troops actually occupied the temple until 1962 when, to the chagrin of Bangkok, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that it belonged to Cambodia. Crucially, that ruling did not resolve the issue of ownership of the land around the temple, which both countries continue to claim.

If the fighting re-starts, the fear is not only that more lives will be lost, but that the temple will be damaged. During last week's fighting, an M-79 rifle-fired grenade shot from the nearby Thai frontlines landed a few meters from one of the temple's two imposing stone Nagas — the seven-headed snake deity of the Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. Shrapnel sprayed the area but caused only superficial damage to the sculpture.

Still, says Om Phirum, chief of the heritage police at Preah Vihear temple, it's not the amount of damage to the Naga that matters, but the principle of fighting around such a sacred site. "This is a serious crime," says Om Phirum, as he searches the earth around the impact site for silver-and gold-colored pieces of shrapnel. "This shows that the Thai soldiers do not respect Unesco's listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site. I am seriously concerned that if the fighting continues the temple will be seriously affected."

Troops in the area say they understand the gravity of the situation, and are working to avoid fresh fighting. This week's exchange began when Thai and Cambodian patrols clashed, not because of orders for outright confrontation, says Colonel Som Bopharoath, commander of Cambodian forces in Preah Vihear province. "So far the fighting happened accidentally. It is not intentional," says Som. "Both sides are trying hard not to have a confrontation."

Thai Army Captain Apichat concurs. Apichat, who is based near the temple with a unit of 10 Thai troops, says that commanders on both sides need to keep talking. Apichat and his men were disarmed and detained by Cambodian soldiers for a day during the fighting but he doesn't want any more problems. "After the attack we must be concerned," he says, sitting alongside a Cambodian officer at a table in the compound of a pagoda that neighbors the temple. "We need to have meetings ... and have no fighting."

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