Thai-Cambodian border dispute heads to Hague as commanders meet again

Deadly skirmishes overnight on the Thai-Cambodian border broke a tentative cease-fire, but army commanders are holding talks again today as Cambodia simultaneously took the case to The Hague.

Wason Wanichkorn/AP
Thai soldiers ride a pickup during clashes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers in Surin province, northeastern Thailand, on Friday, April 29. A brief cease-fire between the two countries broke down Friday, shattering hopes for a quick end to the border conflict as the two sides exchanged fire for an eighth day.

As army commanders held talks today on the Thai-Cambodian border after six days of clashes that have left 16 dead in the worst fighting in nearly three years, Cambodian officials simultaneously opened a new diplomatic front in the battle for an 11th century Khmer temple.

Cambodia's government said Friday it has asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to clarify its 1962 ruling that awarded the temple to Cambodia, a request prompted by Thailand’s “repeated armed aggression to exert its claim to Cambodia’s territory."

Hundreds of troops from both nations have been camped out around the temple for years. After repeated deadly skirmishes and with United Nations and regional mediators repeatedly stifled in their attempts to negotiate a permanent cease-fire, Cambodia's bid to take the case back to The Hague after 50 years injects a new note of uncertainty into the border crisis.

Deadly gunfights early Friday broke a tentative truce agreed on late Thursday, with each side blaming the other for firing first. Thai military spokesman Col. Samsern Kaewkamnerd said the overnight exchanges of artillery and small arms fire killed one Thai soldier and injured four others, but he downplayed it as “sporadic clashes."

Thani Thongpakdee, a spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry, said Cambodia had instigated the latest fighting in order to “lay the ground for their decision to submit their request [to the ICJ].” He told a press conference Friday that Thailand had already anticipated this strategy and was preparing its legal defense.

Perched on a tall cliff, Preah Vihear is a contemporary of Angkor Wat, the renowned Cambodian temple that appears on the Cambodian national flag and has become a major tourist attraction.

Fighting also erupted this week around two other ancient temples, though analysts say the border dispute seems driven as much by domestic politics as strategic interests.

In recent days, politicians in both countries have toned down nationalist rhetoric, allowing local military commanders to pursue a cease-fire. The US and other allies have urged an end to the fighting and a resumption of negotiations. Thailand’s Army chief is in Beijing and is expected to brief his Chinese counterparts on the situation during the prearranged visit, say Thai officials.

Thai officials said the two countries’ foreign ministers would meet next week on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit held in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.

Indonesia, as the current ASEAN chair, has tried to facilitate talks between the warring parties and to send military observers to the border. But Thailand has dragged its feet on allowing Indonesian observers into the disputed area, to the frustration of Cambodia, which has appealed to the UN to intervene in the conflict.

Thai government officials argue that bilateral talks are the best way to end the fighting. “We hope that Cambodia will return to the negotiating table,” said government spokesman Panitan Wattanyagorn.

Opposition politicians have accused Thailand’s powerful military of stirring trouble on the border as a pretext to crack down on dissent at home. Military chiefs have denied rumors of a coup to derail elections due by July.

Mr. Panitan insisted that civilian officials were in charge of border affairs. “The government has set guidelines for the military to follow,” he said.

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