Two soldiers are dead and six are injured for 4.6 square kilometres of land. Whose land? Well that is the question. Thailand claims it. Cambodia claims it. Neither side is happy with the other’s claim.
Historically, both have owned it. Naturally both claim ownership today. It has been a point of contention for quite a few decades. With the Khmer Rouge and the resultant landmines, the whole area was inaccessible until the early 90s so the argument was moot.
On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, ordered the Thais to withdraw or risk a bloodbath. The Thais refused to withdraw. Then the shooting began. Rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns were fired. Two soldiers were killed.
Nobody is sure who fired first. Both sides claimed that it was the other. Thai Foreign Minister, Sompong Amornvivat, has urged Thai nationals to leave Cambodia, no doubt remembering the violence of the anti-Thai riots in 2003.
In fact, the current fighting might easily have been avoided but with civil unrest in Thailand and the recent election in Cambodia, the dispute has taken on a life of its own.
A bit of history:
In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded the 9th century Hindu temple of Preah Vihear to Cambodia. The ICJ did not rule on the 4.6 square kilometres of land surrounding the temple. It is claimed by Thailand.
The ownership became an issue again in July 2008 when UNESCO designated Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site in Cambodia. Thailand took issue with this decision. An outsider might well be curious as to why the decision of an international cultural organisation has had such serious consequences, and certainly without in other political circumstances, a minor protest might have been lodged.
As luck would have it, the dispute arose in the run up to the general election, which fanned the ultra-nationalist factions in Cambodia. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen likes to be known as the strong man of Asia.
Indeed even expats lower their voices when they refer to him while out for a drink. His power is absolute. His word is law. He has been in power since the Vietnamese threw out the Khmer Rouge. He was a Khmer Rouge soldier but that is not mentioned nowadays.
Nobody really had any doubts but that Cambodia’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), would win. The usual ‘rice for votes’, intimidation, fear and ghost voters made any outcome but a victory impossible. The PM even stated that there would be civil war if he were not re-elected. Nothing like a little intimidation to encourage people to vote the ‘right’ way.
The Thai-Cambodian Preah Vihear dispute was a boon because it allowed Hun Sen to bellow anti-Thai rhetoric and pander to the nationalist factions. Not to be outdone, Thai nationalists went on hunger strike.
Cambodians don’t like the Thais anyway (or the Vietnamese for that matter). It is a centuries long hatred that bubbles under the surface. One of the major cities is even named ‘Thailand Defeated’. You may know it as Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat. Cambodians are very sensitive regarding the size of their territory. In regard to the history of the great Khmer Empire, Reuters reminds us that:
“Drummed into every school-child’s head, its area – 181,035 sq km – is as etched into the collective memory as deep as “9-11″ in the United States.”
In fact, commenters on Khmer blogs praised the Thai hunger strikers and urged them to continue. They stated, anonymously of course, that they would like to see the Thais dead.
It is serious business. Cambodian troops have been staring at Thai troops since July and both sides are trigger-happy. The situation on the ground has waxed and waned with the deployment of more and less troops over the past few months.
Cambodians called for a boycott of Thai goods, which had commercial impact. The baiting and posturing has been going on since.
On Monday, The Nation reported that
“Cambodian PM Hun Sen wasted no time in making his point. An ultimatum was issued even before Sompong [Thai Minister for Foreign Affairs] touched down on Thai soil: Hun Sen gave Thailand until midday yesterday to withdraw troops from areas of overlapping territorial claim or he would use military force to resolve the matter.”
As you can see, Hun Sen is not famous for his diplomatic skills.
Thai soldiers received orders to retaliate immediately if fired upon. Fighter planes were put on standby. No doubt this sabre-rattling contributed to Wednesday’s shootings.
The situation stands thus: Thailand is reinforcing its defences with additional troops are artillery. Cambodian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hor Namhong, said ten Thai soldiers had surrendered.
Both sides are aggrieved but neither wants bear responsibility for war.