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Caught in the Thailand-Cambodia crossfire: Preah Vihear temple

In the two years since Preah Vihear temple was designated a World Heritage Site, repeated firefights across the Thailand-Cambodia border have taken a heavy toll on the ancient spiritual site.

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From the border area, Seth Mydans of The New York Times reports today that “after the engagement last weekend, the portion of the temple closest to Thailand showed the marks of the fighting, with chips and chunks cut out of a column and of a wall of the fourth gopura, or entrance building, along the temple’s causeway. A trail of blood through a carved stone doorway traced the last steps of a Cambodian soldier who was killed.”

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The Phnom Penh Post reports that “felled trees, small craters and blackened remnants of fires told a story of fierce fighting around the temple, which sustained damage from grenades fired from over the border.”

Thai politics fans flames

Politics and nationalism have fueled the conflict since 2008. Both Thailand's “red shirt” and "yellow shirt" protesters have accused the prime minister at different times of ceding land around the temple to Cambodia.

The border flare-up came three days after a Cambodian court convicted two Thai nationals of espionage and unlawful entry, handing them lengthy prison terms for crossing the border into Cambodia in December. Also stoking political posturing, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called for an early election this year.

"The conflict is being driven largely by Thai domestic politics," argues Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia editor for Asia Times Online. "Because Abhisit did not give the order to open fire, some see the armed exchanges and immediate breakdown of a ceasefire declared on Saturday as yet another indication that he lacks command control over the military. The hostilities and protests come at a time some believe Thailand's top military brass seek a national security-related pretense to stall Abhisit's early election plan."

A precarious border, a superstitious Army

Along with politics, yet another problem is Thailand’s resistance to outside mediation. Cambodia’s repeated requests for the United Nations to intervene have been met with firm rejections by Thailand, which insists that bilateral talks are the best way to resolve the crisis, as The Christian Science Monitor reported Monday.

In addition to physical damage, the ongoing fighting has also "caused immense spiritual harm" to the temple in the eyes of Cambodians, as The Cambodia Daily has reported in April 2009, when a sculpture of a nine-headed mythical naga serpent, seen as a guardian spirit of the temple, was damaged by shrapnel.

Perhaps indicative of cultural roadblocks to preservation, troops actually undid some of the physical restoration efforts in order to repair the spiritual damage. Soldiers said the sculpture was not hurt because of the shrapnel; rather, a cable tied around the naga's neck to keep it from falling had prevented its guardian spirit from protecting the temple.

"The naga was tied too tight and could not move, that is why it was shot," a Cambodian soldier guarding the stone sculpture told the English-language newspaper.


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