The Preah Vihear Blame Game

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The latest clash between Thailand and Cambodia concerns much more than a 4.6 kilometre stretch of scrub. These things always do.

Although officially referred to as the border conflict by Cambodian government spokespersons, it is the Preah Vihear temple, located atop a hill on Cambodia’s side of the border and declared a World Heritage Site in 2008 by UNESCO, which is at the heart of the decades-long conflict.

Cambodian weapons positioned immediately adjacent to Preah Vihear temple aimed at the Thai base on the next hilltop. The temple is built on a hill about 525-metres high. Photo: Catherine James

It is not the first time there has been bloodshed over the site which saw violent conflict in October 2008 and April 2009.

The blood of the Cambodian soldier killed by shrapnel in the shelling of the night of 6 February still stains the stones of Preah Vihear. Photo: Catherine James

A solution to the recent violence, which has reportedly killed at least 10 people — including civilians — and wounded dozens more on both sides, will be thrashed out when the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers meet in Jakarta for talks this week, mediated by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Thursday that Cambodia would seek an ASEAN presence at the border to mitigate the military standoff; however, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has consistently insisted on a bilateral solution only.
The Bangkok Post summed up the Thai position on Saturday:
"no one knows the problems on the border better than those involved in the dispute: itself, and Cambodia."

On the other hand, an opinion piece in the Phnom Penh Post last week voices the attitude of many Cambodians to the situation:

"The view from Cambodia is simple: the issue of sovereignty over the temple was decided back in 1962 when the case was submitted to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. If Thailand didn’t want to abide by the court’s ruling then why did it agree to submit the case in the first place? And why are they groaning now and firing artillery shells at the temple almost 50 years later?"

A Cambodian officer standing on the Preah Vihear temple surveys the Thai base through binoculars on 8 February. Photo: Catherine James

Despite unofficial reports yesterday that the two nations had reached a military ceasefire, it’s unclear how long that could last.

A military ceasefire was brokered on 5 February — but the night of 6 February saw the worst of the four days of shelling from the Thai side, according to Cambodian soldiers based at the temple who talked to New Matilda in the days that followed.

The view of the Thai base from the front section of Preah Vihear temple, the stones of which can be seen in the foreground. Photo: Catherine James

Last week’s request from the UN Security Council (UNSC) for a permanent ceasefire lasted barely a day before shells and artillery were again fired — with both sides saying the other shot first.

The UN emergency meeting, requested by Cambodia, and held in New York between Thailand’s Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and his Cambodia counterpart Hor Namhong failed to alleviate tensions.

Cambodia had requested the UN provide peacekeepers along the border but Thailand rejected this suggestion before the talks took place. The UN ultimately passed the matter onto the ASEAN, of which both countries are members.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong told New Matilda the government was not disappointed with the UN outcome. "No, we’re happy," he said. "The UNSC held an urgent meeting as requested by the Cambodian government and called for a permanent ceasefire. This was very important. Then they supported the acting role of the ASEAN in the conflict."

One of the unexploded bombs from the shelling between 4 and 7 February in the vicinity of the Preah Vihear temple. Photo: Catherine James

Both sides have claimed persistently over the last fortnight that it was the other party who started the clashes. Neither government has a monopoly on truth and both have misled the public in their statements.

Take, for example, news reports from 8 February. Thai army spokesperson Sansern Kaewkamnerd said Thailand had not fired shells at the temple in the four days of fighting, describing Cambodian government’s reports of damage to the site as "propaganda". But a walk around the site three days later showed clear signs of bombs and shrapnel damage and unexploded bombs are also visible. He accused Cambodia of damaging the temple through using it as "a heavy arms base to fire at Thai soldiers stationed in areas in Thai territory that were at lower elevation".

A Cambodian solider, who says he has been based at temple since 2008, points to shrapnel embedded in the tree from a bomb which struck the ground about 15 metres away. Fresh damage to the temple caused by shrapnel can also be seen in the background. Photo: Catherine James

The Cambodian Foreign Ministry responded to the accusation issuing a statement categorically denying any soldiers were based at the temple. "There has never been and there will never be Cambodian soldiers at the TEMPLE OF PREAH VIHEAR," it said in the released statement, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

However, there were clearly dozens of soldiers encamped and bunkered in and all around the site three days later — and they have been there since July 15 2008, according to the officers based at the temple.

Part of the shell of what experts claim is an exploded cluster bomb, found after the 6 February shelling, rests on the floor of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre in Preah Vihear province. Photo: Catherine James

The latest installment of this blame game has seen both countries accusing the other of using cluster bombs.

Cluster munitions are particularly heinous because of the high threat they pose to civilian populations after military disputes have ended. The bomb usually explodes in mid-air releasing sometimes up to 70 "bomblets" (for a 155mm shell). The bomblets parachute to the ground to prevent detonation on impact, only to be triggered later by whomsoever may stumble across it.

The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) reported evidence of Thailand using cluster bombs during the heaviest period of fighting from 4 to 7 February. The Thais soon responded with similar allegations. Neither Thailand nor Cambodia are signatories to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Saem Ponnreay, manager of the CMAC Unit Three based in Preah Vihear province told New Matilda a bomb from a cluster munition had already claimed the lives of two civilians in the area. According to Saem, a local policeman picked up one of the unexploded bomblets and took it home. It detonated while he was showing it to friends, killing two people and wounding eight, including some who lost limbs as a result.

"Based on our assessment, all these areas that we’ve formally cleared, we’re going to have to go through all the territory again," Saem said through a translator, adding that Svay Chrum, a village four kilometres from the border, was "full of them".

One week into living in a makeshift camp, displaced Cambodians sit in rows to receive noodles and traditional Cambodian scarves provided by the King.
Photo: Catherine James

Meanwhile, the conflict has displaced thousands of civilians, with some non-government organisations estimating that as many as 30,000 people on both sides of the border have fled their homes and livelihoods. Bombs have fallen in civilian areas, in one instance 26 km inside the Cambodian border.

Evacuations began on 3 February. While some civilians have returned to their homes, fresh rumours last week of the Thai army building up its maritime forces on a second front — the maritime border the Cambodia — saw the UN evacuate most of its staff from the coastal Koh Kong province. Some estimate are that almost 70 per cent of the local population has fled inland.

Much depends on the outcome of this week’s talks in Jakarta.

A boy in one of the four Cambodian camps for displaced persons stares into space as people move toward where the noodle boxes and scarves are being given out. Photo: Catherine James

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