Thai-Cambodian clashes, nationalist passions, and a neglected temple

Today's deadly Thai-Cambodian clash near the disputed Preah Vihear temple comes days after a Cambodian court convicted two Thai nationals of espionage.

Chor Sokunthea/Reuters/File
A view of the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, a World Heritage Site, is seen during sunrise in Preah Vihear Province, 337 miles north of Phnom Penh in this March 13, 2009, file photo.

When Thai and Cambodian troops clashed today along their disputed border, it was only the latest in a number of deadly firefights over a patch of land surrounding an 11th century temple.

After months of escalating rhetoric, today's exchange of gunfire reportedly killed at least one villager and injured at least five Thai troops. Each military blamed the other for initiating the fight near the ancient Preah Vihear temple.

Most of the time, however, the volatile border area has been silent, even as hundreds of troops from both sides have remained camped in the surrounding jungle for several years. On a recent visit to the temple, the surrounding military trenches were empty and the ledges were bare of artillery.

The dispute is fueled by nationalist passions. Cambodia's successful effort in July 2008 to register the temple – which known as Khao Prah Viharn in Thailand – as a World Heritage Site enraged Thai nationalists who claimed sovereignty of the land.

Since then, Thai and Cambodian soldiers have been dug in around the temple, which is perched on a 1,725-foot-high cliff, making it the most dramatically sited of any Angkorian monument. One side of the temple faces Thailand, while the other looks out over the majestic Cambodian plain.

Yet tourism has been severely hampered by the military standoff, with Cambodia locking Thailand's entrance to the temple for the past three years.

Cambodia hopes to boost visits to the temple, which only sees 100 to 200 tourists a day, compared with the thousands of Cambodians and foreigners who scamper daily over the stones of Angkor Wat, some 150 miles away in the city of Siem Reap.

Infrastructure development in the long-neglected Preah Vihear Province, including a paved road from Siem Reap (the gateway to Angkor Wat) and daily bus service, are making the temple more accessible. There has even been talk of reopening the nearby border crossing with Thailand.

Yet the border may stay closed a while longer because of today's firefight. It comes 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.

The risk of more fighting near the temple will remain until the two countries announce a complete withdrawal. The director of the Preah Vihear National Authority thinks the conflict may eventually prove a draw.

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