By Tim Johnston in Bangkok
Published: February 4 2011 15:19 | Last updated: February 4 2011 15:19
At least one man died when Cambodian and Thai forces traded artillery and mortar fire along a disputed stretch of border, marking a new low point in the troubled relations between the south-east Asian neighbours.
Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a spokesman for the Thai army, said that one villager had died in the hour-long exchange of shells on Friday afternoon.
The two sides gave different accounts of how the clash began. Khieu Kanharith, the Cambodian minister of information, said that it began when Cambodian troops fired warning shots to discourage Thai troops from entering its territory and the Thais responded with shelling.
Col Sansern told the Financial Times that the clash began after a Cambodian artillery shell landed near a military outpost and Thai troops fired warning shots back.
The fighting erupted near a disputed 11th century Hindu temple which is claimed by both sides and has become a focal point for both Thai and Cambodian nationalists. There have been numerous clashes near the temple, known as Preah Vihear in Thailand and Khao Prah Viharn in Cambodia, but Thani Thongpakdi, the spokesman for the Thai foreign ministry, played down the significance of the latest clash.
“It is too soon to rush to the conclusion that we are in confrontation: it could have been accidental,” he said.
Kasit Piromya, the Thai Foreign Minister, was in Cambodia on Friday to discuss a number of economic and political issues, including the border issue. Mr Thani said the talks had gone well, but the delegation had left Phnom Penh before the clashes broke out.
Thailand and Cambodia, both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have an uneasy relationship that has been made more turbulent by the lack of clarity surrounding their shared border, an issue which has long provided a ready source of fuel for nationalist chauvinism on both sides.
Although the temple buildings at the centre of Friday’s clash were awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962, Thai nationalists say that a 4.6 square km area that forms the only practical approach to the temple belongs to Thailand.
The wound was reopened in late December, when a group of seven Thais, including a member of parliament, were arrested by the Cambodian authorities after illegally crossing another part of their disputed border.
Most were released, but three days ago Veera Somkwarmkid, a leader of a group called the Thai Patriots Network, was sentenced to eight years in prison after he was convicted of espionage for illegally crossing into Cambodian territory.
A right-wing pressure group has been camped outside the office of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, since last week demanding that he expedite Mr Veera’s release.
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BANGKOK | Fri Feb 4, 2011 7:25am EST
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Fighting broke out on Friday between Thai and Cambodian soldiers on a disputed stretch of the border between the two Southeast Asian countries, the latest flare-up in an ancient feud over a 900-year-old Hindu temple.
Below are some facts about the temple, the territorial dispute and possible political ramifications in Thailand.
WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF PREAH VIHEAR?
Preah Vihear, or Khao Phra Viharn as the Thais call it, was completed in the 11th century and predates Cambodia’s more famous Angkor Wat temple complex by 100 years.
Many say its stunning setting atop a jungle-clad escarpment overlooking northern Cambodia eclipses its celebrated cousin as the finest of all the ruins left from the mighty Khmer civilization.
The temple has in recent years been accessible mainly from Thailand. Landmines and Khmer Rouge guerrillas kept it off-limits from the Cambodian side for decades.
WHY THE DISPUTE?
Both sides have historically laid claim to the temple but a 1962 World Court ruling awarded it to Cambodia.
Thailand and Cambodia have squabbled ever since over demarcation of the border and jurisdiction over the 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) of land around Preah Vihear, which was not covered by the ruling.
For generations, the temple has stirred nationalist passions on both sides. Before the court in The Hague issued its ruling, Thailand’s government organized a fundraiser in which every citizen donated 1 baht to pay for the legal team.
HAS THERE BEEN VIOLENCE OVER THIS IN THE PAST?
Cambodia’s bid since March 2008 to list the ruins as a World Heritage Site sparked an exchange of gunfire in October that year in which one Thai and three Cambodian soldiers died.
There have since been sporadic flare-ups, the most recent in April last year, when there were no casualties.
However, the dispute has been back in the headlines since the end of last year, when a group of Thai nationalists was arrested for allegedly encroaching into Cambodian territory.
A Cambodian court sentenced two of them on February 1 to jail terms of six and eight years for trespass and spying.
“Yellow shirt” nationalists demonstrating over the territorial dispute near the Thai prime minister’s office since January 25 have threatened to step up their protests, putting pressure on the government to take a tougher line.
HOW IS THE DISPUTE BEING RESOLVED?
The two countries routinely pledge cooperation over the temple issue, give guarantees their border troops will engage in no hostilities and agree to delineate the border once and for all, but the quarrelling never seems to stop.
Thailand wants joint development and supervision of the Hindu temple, which could one day be a lucrative tourist site.
However, the debate is often used in both countries as a tool to gain popular support or to distract the public from other issues at home.
(Compiled by Martin Petty and Alan Raybould; Editing by Jason Szep and Ron Popeski)