By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Apr 25, 2011 (IPS) - A diplomatic deadlock between Thailand and Cambodia is ratcheting up already rising tensions between the two Southeast Asian countries, where a fresh round of border clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops has resulted in 12 deaths on both sides since Friday.
The current round of this dispute between Bangkok and Phnom Penh erupted in early February with troops from both countries clashing near Preah Vihear - a 10th-century Hindu temple that belongs to Cambodia - resulting in six deaths.
The Cambodian administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen has sought to seek international support since late February to resolve border skirmishes. It is unequivocally supportive of Indonesia, as the current head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to send an observer mission to bring calm to the region - including the steep cliff, with its spectacular views, on which Preah Vihear is perched.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who is also a former foreign minister of Thailand, called Monday for Thailand and Cambodia to cease fighting and negotiate a settlement to their border dispute.
"We have said since Feb. 22 that we support an Indonesian presence along the border," Koy Kuong, spokesman for Cambodia’s foreign ministry, said during a telephone interview from the country’s capital. "It is good to have an independent, third party observer like Indonesia to end the aggression."
For its part, Thailand, while welcoming an Indonesian role as facilitator, has been pushing for a bilateral solution. Bangkok is averse to a bigger role for a third country, fearing that it could "internationalise" the dispute.
"Border negotiations are always resolved bilaterally. We have no problem with Indonesia facilitating a meeting with both sides," Thani Thongphakdi, spokesman for the Thai foreign ministry, told IPS. "We have no intention to escalate this issue, to internationalise it, since it is not an issue for the international community."
Yet in an election year, Thailand appears to be speaking with many tongues, winning it little friends in some regional capitals. The administration of Prime Minsiter Abhisit Vejjajiva has found itself being opposed to the country’s powerful and ultra-nationalist military, whose leaders have openly challenged the move by the doves in the foreign ministry to offer an Indonesian mission a foothold in the rugged, hilly, disputed terrain.
"Cambodia has been consistent in trying to find an answer, even suggesting measures like aerial mapping to photograph 23 disputed areas along the border where they want a resolution," a Southeast Asian diplomat told IPS on condition of anonymity. "Thailand has been delaying things and sending mixed messages because of its domestic political problems."
The political fault lines, pitting the more affluent Thailand against the poorer Cambodia, goes back to mid-2008, when Cambodia scored a major diplomatic triumph after the U.N.-backed World Heritage Committee approved Phnom Penh’s request to have the Preah Vihear temple recognised as a World Heritage Site.
The thousands of people who poured into the streets of Phnom Penh to celebrate that moment affirmed the importance of this architectural jewel of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilisation to the kingdom. It was likewise in 1962, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the temple was situated in Cambodian territory, legally ending Thailand’s claims to Preah Vihear.
"Winning the Preah Vihear case at the ICJ and ensuring it remains ours is a deep source of national pride for Cambodia," Son Soubert, high privy councillor to the Cambodian king, told IPS. "It is the strongest symbol to represent our independence from French colonisation."
And attempts to reclaim the temple or claim its nearby territory by Thailand have consequently served as a political windfall to Hun Sen, an increasingly authoritarian figure who has been in power for over 25 years. Even traditional critics of the premier in parliament and the media have closed ranks when Cambodian troops near Preah Vihear or nearby border areas face threats from their western neighbour.
"SRP condemns Thai invasion on Cambodia’s sovereignty," was the headline in an opposition website about a statement issued over the weekend by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
"I’m as angry as all Cambodians are at what we perceive as a Thai-initiated conflict of grossly unjust proportions," wrote Michael Hayes, a founding editor of ‘The Phnom Penh Post’ and a critic of the Hun Sen administration, in a mid-February commentary. "In all the 20 years I’ve been in Cambodia, the Preah Vihear issue is without question the only one I’ve seen that has united the entire nation."
The Thai public’s interest in the disputes along the country’s eastern borders does not resonate likewise. "It is hard, if not impossible, to find unity… since the  coup," says Puangthong Rungswasdisab, assistant professor in international relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "The temple issue has emerged at a time when Thailand has become a highly polarised country, and the small protest group that is interested is driven by their leaders’ misinformation, hatred and ultra- nationalism."
"Though the current problem has caused another embarrassment to Thailand’s international image, it is not a conflict of policies and objectives," Rungswasdisab told IPS. "I think it is due to a lack of cooperation between the foreign ministry and the army and their different perceptions over ASEAN’s role."
"The current conflict is a major test of ASEAN’s role to resolve disputes within its bloc," said a foreign ministry official from a regional capital. "The international community will be watching us, and look at the timing: we are just about to have an ASEAN summit in early May."
ASEAN is a 10-member regional bloc, of which Indonesia is the current head. The other countries are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.