Talks between Thai and Cambodian defence ministers to end Southeast Asia’s bloodiest border dispute in years were abruptly cancelled, dashing hopes of an imminent end to fighting that has killed at least 14 people and sent more than 50,000 into evacuation centres.
Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon had been expected to meet his Cambodian counterpart, Tea Banh, in Phnom Penh, but he instead was flying to China for previously scheduled meetings.
“We welcome talks but only if Cambodia stops the shooting first,” said Thai Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took a more conciliatory approach, saying talks between defence ministers have merely been “rescheduled.”
Many experts say the fighting over territory and sovereignty is fuelled by political interests, as each government seeks to discredit the other by appealing to nationalists at home, especially as Thailand prepares for an election due by July.
A change in government could be in Cambodia’s interests.
Analysts said the Thai military could also be flexing its muscles to preserve its sizeable stake in Thailand’s political apparatus and to satisfy conservative elites at odds with the country’s powerful opposition forces.
Thailand says it wants a bilateral solution to the dispute. Cambodia seeks international mediation and independent monitors in the disputed area as agreed by Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Jakarta in February.
“The two countries appear to be calling for different kinds of talks. Cambodia is calling for cease-fire talks, which Thailand says are pointless,” said Surachart Bumrungsuk, a security expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
MAJOR TEST FOR ASEAN
Those differences are posing a major test for ASEAN, a 10-member bloc with ambitions to become a regional community by 2015 and a viable counterweight to China’s growing clout.
It is also a potential embarrassment for Indonesia, whose foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, had brokered the U.N.-backed cease-fire pact in February that would have placed unarmed Indonesian military observers along the disputed border.
The Thai army objected and the deal never went through.
Thailand’s foreign minister is due to meet with Natalegawa on Thursday in Jakarta.
The latest fighting began early in the morning with heavy artillery near the Ta Moan and Ta Krabey temples, Cambodia’s defence ministry said.
Sovereignty over the ancient, stone-walled Hindu temples — Preah Vihear, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey — and the jungle of the Dangrek Mountains surrounding them has been in dispute since the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in the 1950s. Reuters