Several hours of shelling and machine gun fire subsided at around 11 a.m. (4:00 a.m. British time), creating an uneasy peace in the 4.6-sq-km (two-sq-mile) contested area around the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple claimed by both Southeast Asian neighbours.
Both sides blame the other for sparking clashes that have killed at least two Thais and three Cambodians since Friday and unleashed nationalist passions in Bangkok, energising “yellow shirt” protesters demanding Thailand’s government step down.
Reasons behind the fighting remain murky. Some analysts reckon hawkish Thai generals and nationalist allies may be trying to topple Thailand’s government or even create a pretext to stage another coup and cancel elections expected this year.
Others say it may be a simple breakdown in communication channels at a time of strained relations over Cambodia’s flying of a national flag in the disputed area and laying of a stone tablet inscribed with “This is Cambodia”.
In Phum Saron, an evacuated village in Thailand’s Si Sa Ket province where Cambodian artillery struck several homes and a school on Sunday, Thai soldiers guarded buildings and said it was unclear if more fighting loomed.
The Thai government said 30 Thai soldiers and 4 villagers had been wounded so far. Cambodia says 10 of its troops were wounded.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the U.N. Security Council to convene an urgent meeting, accusing Thailand of “repeated acts of aggression” that have killed Cambodians and caused a wing of the temple to collapse.
In a speech in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen directly addressed his Thai counterpart.
“We will go to the U.N. Security Council whether you like it or not,” he said during a university graduation ceremony, calling on the United Nations to deploy peacekeeping troops to the area. “The armed clash is threatening regional security.”
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva wrote to the Security Council accusing Cambodia of starting the fighting by opening fire at a Thai military post at Phat Ma Khua village on Friday, and again in the same area on Sunday.
“Thai soldiers had no choice but to exercise the inherent right of self defence,” Abhisit said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement he was “deeply concerned” and urged both sides to cease fire and find a “lasting solution” to the dispute, echoing a similar statement from Washington over the weekend.
INFLAMING THAI NATIONALISTS
The dispute threatens to worsen long-running hostility between Thai political factions ahead of the expected general election this year.
Thailand’s national police chief said he would seek cabinet approval on Tuesday to impose the Internal Security Act this week to give the military powers to prevent protesters from occupying government buildings in Bangkok in a planned protest on Friday.
The “yellow shirts”, who helped to bring Abhisit to power, have turned against him in recent weeks, calling for him to take a tougher line against Cambodia.
In 2008, they occupied state offices for three months and blockaded Bangkok’s main airport until a court expelled a government allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a step that paved the way for Abhisit to take power.
“I don’t think this will look good for Abhisit’s government, especially as we are heading towards elections,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Thousands have fled villages on the Thai side and hundreds of Cambodians have been evacuated.
The clashes pushed down shares in Thai firms which have businesses in Cambodia, led by a 1.8 percent loss in satellite firm Thaicom, with its telecom service in Cambodia contributing 10 percent of revenue, said broker Capital Nomura Securities.
The temple, known as Preah Vihear, or “Mountain of the Sacred Temple”, in Cambodia and Khao Phra Viharn in Thailand, sits on a triangular plateau that forms a natural border.
Both sides have been locked in a standoff since July 2008, when Preah Vihear was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, which Thailand opposed on grounds that territory around the temple had never been demarcated.
Thailand ruled much of northwestern Cambodia, including Preah Vihear, from the late 18th century until the early 20th century, when Cambodia’s French colonial rulers forced the Thais back to the current international frontier.
The International Court of Justice in 1962 awarded the temple to Cambodia, which uses a century-old French map as the basis for its territorial claims, but the ruling failed to determine ownership of the scrub next to it. Reuters