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Thailand & Cambodia - Two Buddhist Nations Battle

Thailand and Cambodia, Two Buddhist Nations, Battle on Their Border

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The latest gunfire and two deaths along the disputed Thai-Cambodian border on Wednesday (October 15) threaten to escalate into open warfare between these two Buddhist countries, pitting Bangkok's U.S.-trained military against some of the late Pol Pot's former Khmer Rouge forces.

Thailand is a non-NATO military ally of America, and is bigger, wealthier, and better armed than Cambodia.

But Cambodian soldiers are perceived as tougher jungle fighters after decades of guerrilla war amid that country's horrific "killing fields".

In fresh skirmishes, at least two Cambodian soldiers died, and two were injured, during a gun fight on Wednesday (October 15) near the 11th century stone ruins of Preah Vihear temple, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters.

Cambodian officials also claimed they captured several Thai soldiers.

Five Thai soldiers were injured in battle, Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd said.

Assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were used during the 40-minute clash, though both sides denied firing the first shot.

Unfortunately for Thailand, its Army Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, is embroiled in Bangkok's crippling domestic politics, despite his repeated denials that he is plotting a coup.

Anti-government protestors in Bangkok have pointed to the border dispute to condemn Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat for not protecting Thai territory, and expressed hopes for an army coup.

Preah Vihear's ruins received World Heritage Site status earlier this year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The award immediately sparked outrage in Thailand, fueling distrust between the two countries.

"UNESCO acted as if its World Heritage status was some God-given right, and ignored the fact that a strongman [Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen] in Phnom Penh was exploiting it for political gain," the English-language Nation newspaper said in a Wednesday (October 15) editorial.

Bangkok was not happy with a 1962 World Court judgment which ruled Cambodia owns the Preah Vihear ruins, about 100 miles northeast of Cambodia's fabled Angkor Wat temple complex, near Siem Reap.

Preah Vihear offers majestic stone architecture, ravaged by time and neglect, sprawling across a flat outcropping of land jutting above Cambodia.

Thanks to border maps written by French colonialists when Paris ruled Indochina, the temple appears to hover over northern Cambodia on a mountaintop ledge.

It can be easily approached across relatively flat land from the Thai side, but Cambodians must climb a steep cliff to reach the temple.

Thais insist the flat outcropping is an obvious extension of northeast Thailand, though historians say the temple was built by Cambodia's Khmer rulers.

While the ruins may be Cambodian, Thailand claims 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) of jungle alongside the temple were never clearly demarcated.

Bangkok and Phnom Penh have traditionally been uneasy neighbors, though Thai businesses have expanded in Cambodia during recent years.

During the 1970s, Thailand allowed the U.S. military to use Thai territory as a base to attack Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

As part of America's failed Vietnam War, the U.S. lost its fight against Cambodia's Khmer Rouge communist guerrillas in 1975.

Cambodia's recently re-elected Prime Minister Hun Sen was a mid- level Khmer Rouge commander during the guerrilla war against the U.S.

Hun Sen defected from Pol Pot in 1977, mid-way through Pol Pot's infamous 1975-79 "killing fields" reign, which left more than one million Cambodians dead from starvation, disease, slavery, torture and other abuses.

After helping to defeat Pol Pot, Hun Sen incorporated many former Khmer Rouge guerrillas into Cambodia's army.

The Preah Vihear area is "a life-and-death battle zone," Hun Sen told an economic forum in Phnom Penh on Tuesday (October 14) while hoping for millions of dollars in loans from China.

"The problem is not about withdrawing or not withdrawing -- it's our territory. How can they tell us that it is their territory?" Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat told reporters on Tuesday (October 14) after an unsuccessful meeting with his Cambodian counterpart.

"What can we do? We are in our own homeland, and they want us to evict us from our own home," Sompong said.

"If Cambodia does resort to the use of force in accordance with its so-called ultimatum, Thailand will have to exercise its right of self-defense as provided for under the Charter of the United Nations, in order to protect our de-mining personnel and Thailand's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the Thai Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday (October 14).

"Thailand has always called for, and remains committed to, resolving its boundary issues with Cambodia peacefully," the Foreign Ministry said.

Hidden land mines exploded near Preah Vihear temple on Oct. 3, causing two Thai soldiers to lose legs, and gunfights during the past several weeks injured troops on both sides.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is

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