Wed Apr 27, 2011
By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Thai and Cambodian troops clashed with heavy artillery for a sixth day on Wednesday near two disputed 12th-century Hindu temples, the Cambodian defense ministry said following a night of shelling that killed a Thai villager.
Talks between Thai and Cambodian defense ministers to end Southeast Asia's bloodiest border dispute in years were abruptly canceled, dashing hopes of an imminent end to fighting that has killed at least 14 people and sent more than 50,000 into evacuation centres.
Defense 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 defense ministers have merely been "rescheduled."
Many experts say the fighting over territory and sovereignty is fueled 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 ceasefire 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 ceasefire 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 defense 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.
"We are moving people further away from the border because Cambodia is using longer-range weapons," Surin Province Deputy Governor Yutthana Viriyakitti told Reuters.
Before Friday, Cambodian and Thai soldiers jointly patrolled the area largely without incident. Villagers on both sides, many of whom share the same ethnic makeup, would mingle each day.
"We are neighbors and people here want to live in peace," said a Thai villager who identified herself as Samorn. "I don't understand why talks aren't working."
In the Thai town of Karb Cherng, villagers returned to damaged houses and shelled farmland.
Fighting also erupted on Tuesday at Preah Vihear 150 km (93 miles) to the east, scene of intense clashes February 4-7 that killed 11 people. An international court awarded the temple to Cambodia 49 years ago, but both countries lay claim to a 4.6 sq km (1.8 sq mile) patch of land around it.
The temple was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008, a decision fiercely opposed by Thailand on grounds that the land around Preah Vihear was never demarcated.
(Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok and Sukree Sukplang in Surin. Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)