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UN urges Cambodia-Thailand cease-fire, but will it happen?

The clashes between Cambodia and Thailand in the past month have killed at least eight, displaced thousands, and damaged the World Heritage-listed Preah Vihear temple. The UN says it must stop.

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Thai state media quoted Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Veijajiva saying that the statement “shows that the international community wants both sides to use bilateral talks to end the conflict.”

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But Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesman Koy Kuong said such talks have so far failed.

“The reason we made a submission to the Security Council is that the bilateral approach doesn’t work,” he said in an interview. “We have used the bilateral mechanism for three years. The result of it is aggressive clashes.”

Simmering conflict

The conflict has simmered for decades and occasionally exploded into violence, most recently when soldiers exchanged heavy artillery and small arms fire in a series of battles between Feb. 4, and Feb. 7. Thai and Cambodian soldiers and civilians were killed and injured, while the fighting displaced thousands of families on both sides of the border.

The locus of the dispute is a piece of land less than 5 square kilometers at the foot of the temple. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple itself was in Cambodia, but left ownership of the land at the foot of the temple unresolved. Thailand has repeatedly indicated that it accepts the court’s ruling.

But nationalists have accused their government of ceding Thai land to Cambodia, and the temple has become a focal point for anger during times of political instability in Thailand. On Monday, for example, nationalist protesters rallied in Bangkok, calling for Abhisit to step down over his handling of the border dispute.

Many analysts say domestic Thai politics are the root of the border conflict. A nationalist section of the Yellow Shirt movement that helped bring Abhisit to power now wants him gone. For his part, Abhisit has sought to distance himself from the more radical elements of the movement in a bid to gain international support. But those factions have successfully played upon nationalist public sentiment to attack him. Preah Vihear is the key plank in their platform, and it will continue to be as long as Thailand is in political turmoil.

Despite the UN Security Council’s wishes that Thailand and Cambodia settle their differences through dialogue, political turmoil in Thailand shows no signs of abating soon.

Meanwhile, both countries have massed troops and military equipment along the border. With Thailand and Cambodia facing off on military and diplomatic fronts, the dispute is more likely to continue as it has for decades, periodically claiming lives on either side of the border.

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