Thailand and Cambodia's Battle for an Ancient Temple

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STR / AFP / Getty Images

Cambodian soldiers stand in formation at the Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province, some 500 km northwest of Phnom Penh, on Feb. 6, 2011

By the time the armies of Thailand and Cambodia end their battle for Preah Vihear, an 11th century temple on the border between the two countries, there may be nothing left to fight over.

On Feb. 7, for the fourth day running, fighting broke out at the disputed site, causing extensive damage. At least five people, including two Thai soldiers, were killed. On the Thai side, 34 have been injured, including 10 Thai soldiers, and Thai homes and schools have been burned to the ground. Cambodia claims the damage was caused by Thai shells. The Thais counter that Cambodia shot first. "We have to defend ourselves," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a spokesman for the Thai government. Both sides have asked the United Nations Security Council to step in.

This is the latest volley in a long-standing dispute between these Southeast Asian neighbors. The temple sits on a cliff that appears to be Thai soil, but the International Court of Justice awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, basing its decision on a French colonial-era map. Successive Thai governments have respected the court's decision — to the dismay of some Thai nationalists — but a 4.6-sq-km area around the temple was not ruled upon, and demarcation negotiations have been stalled. In 2008, the Thai government supported a proposal that would have listed Cambodia as the sole owner of the temple, infuriating Thai nationalists. The current government wants joint management via UNESCO, but the plan has not been approved yet.

It's hard to say what exactly sparked the latest round of violence — the triggers are as murky as the conflicting territorial claims. Some observers, including many Cambodians, believe Thailand attacked to relieve pressure from a radical nationalist group called the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), or the "Yellow Shirts." Current Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya is a former member of the PAD and has been criticized for failing to secure the release of two colleagues arrested by Cambodia at the disputed border in December. For weeks, his former comrades have been protesting in Bangkok, espousing hate speech against Cambodians and issuing a set of extremist demands that include a Thai boycott off the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and the use of military force to evict Cambodian villagers from the disputed area.

Thailand denies that either the government or the military acted to appease the PAD. "We wouldn't create another major problem just to satisfy one protest group," said Panitan. In any event, it hasn't appeased the Yellow Shirts: though they once supported the current government, they are now calling on the Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to resign. And Thai Army Chief General Prayuth Chanocha appeared irritated with the Yellow Shirts during a press conference over the Feb. 5-6 weekend, suggesting that if Yellow Shirt leaders want the army to use force so badly, they should serve on the front lines.

Thai officials say Cambodia is to blame. They speculate that Cambodia's Prime Minister, Hun Sen, may be angling for U.N. and international sympathy and support ahead of a UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting, scheduled for June in Bahrain, that will consider who should manage the temple. That's not so far-fetched: Hun's government has whipped up anti-Thai sentiment and violence in the past for domestic purposes. In 2003, for instance, a false report spread that a Thai actress had claimed that Cambodia's famed ancient temples of Angkor were actually built by Thais. Anti-Thai riots erupted in the Cambodian capital, and the Thai military was forced to mount a commando-style evacuation of its citizens.

It isn't clear yet whether the U.N. Security Council will take up the conflict, and if it does, how quickly it will proceed. Ultimately, Panitan said, the dispute will have to be settled bilaterally, as is the diplomatic norm. But judging from the snail's pace of negotiations and the speed with which armed conflict is escalating, one can only wonder if the temple itself can survive the maelstrom.