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Thai-Cambodia border clashes raise diplomatic stakes

Diplomats are struggling to tamp down on four days of deadly firefights between Thai and Cambodian troops along their disputed land border.

Diplomats are struggling to tamp down on four days of deadly firefights between Thai and Cambodian troops along their disputed land border. Repeated clashes between the two militaries, egged on by nationalist rhetoric from both sides, has thus far proven an intractable and embarrassing issue for Southeast Asia’s regional diplomatic body.

Thailand and Cambodia have each accused the other of provoking fighting that erupted Friday, which has killed at least 12 soldiers and forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee. The clashes are the deadliest in nearly three years of skirmishes along the mountainous border, which is disputed in several places, including around the grounds of an 11th century Hindu temple known as Preah Vihear.

The latest fighting broke out near two other ancient Hindu temples. Cambodia said Monday that Thai troops had damaged the ancient sites, though similar claims have proven to be exaggerated in the past. Both sides have fired mortar shells and rockets in recent days.

While Thailand insists on settling the dispute via bilateral talks, Cambodia has repeatedly appealed to the United Nations to intervene. In February, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which both countries belong, agreed to send observers to monitor a ceasefire in what analysts say is a test of ASEAN’s diplomatic weight. Until now, the group of 10 nations has focused on economic cooperation and steered clear of thorny border disputes.

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As the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia offered to send observers to the border. But disagreement over the observers’ role, and opposition from Thailand’s powerful military, has delayed the mission. Angered by the delays, Cambodia has accused Thailand of reneging on its commitment to ASEAN’s monitoring mission.

Amid wrangling, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa canceled a planned visit Monday to Bangkok even as ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan called for “a genuine dialogue between the two sides.” Thailand’s foreign minister is currently scheduled to fly to Jakarta later this weeks for talks with Mr. Natalegawa.

In a statement Sunday, the Cambodian government described Thai claims of recent Cambodian aggression as a “slanderous and false allegation, which is aimed at misleading the public opinion.”

Thani Thongpakdee, a spokesman for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Cambodian troops were to blame for the latest clashes. He said that Thailand was ready to accept Indonesian monitors, as long as they were unarmed and confined to specific border areas. However, he admitted that the current fighting was outside the designated areas.

“We still believe that having these observers in here is better than not having them and gives some kind of confidence to those living along the border,” he says.

The controversy over Preah Vihear, which was listed in 2008 as a World Heritage Site, dates back at least 50 years. In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia. Thai nationalists argue that this ruling was based on flawed French colonial-era maps and that it should be given to Thailand.

Thailand’s polarized politics may be stoking the current conflict, amid warnings of military meddling in a planned election in June or July. Some analysts believe that saber-rattling by Thailand’s military could be a tactic to delay the election and suppress the opposition, which is loyal to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

However, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Monday that he wanted to repair bilateral ties with Cambodia. “We don’t want it [the fighting] to escalate,” he said.