BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai and Cambodian troops battled for a fourth successive day on Monday over a disputed border area as Cambodia urged the U.N. Security Council to intervene to prevent the conflict from escalating.
Shelling and machine gunfire rang out in the 4.6-sq-km (two-sq-mile) contested area around the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, land that is claimed by both Southeast Asian neighbours.
There is no clear answer at this stage. Both sides blame each other for starting the clashes four days ago and for breaching a tenuous cease-fire agreed between the two armies on Friday night. It is not certain whether the shooting and shelling are offensive or defensive measures.
Security analysts say this is precisely why the fighting has continued for four days: both armies say they are reacting to the other side’s aggression.
The clashes could have occurred as a result of a misunderstanding or a breakdown in communication channels. This has certainly been the case in previous years.
There has been increased military activity on both sides of the border in recent weeks and some troops are operating in an unfamiliar situation. Something as simple as a few warning shots or border patrols straying too far could have set things off.
Tensions have undoubtedly increased in tandem with the beefing up of troops on either side. Issues like Cambodia’s flying of a national flag in the disputed area and laying of a stone tablet inscribed with “This is Cambodia” have angered the Thai military, as have accusations by Thai nationalists that the soldiers have failed to protect Thai sovereignty.
They enjoyed cordial relations in recent months and had shown unprecedented restraint in dealing with sensitive diplomatic issues related to the border.
That has changed. Cambodian’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday said counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva was “hungry for war” and the Thai Foreign Ministry accused Cambodia of “an act of aggression” in “violation of Thai sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Cambodia seems to be doing all it can to internationalise the issue and has urged the U.N. Security Council to intervene, with or without Thailand’s cooperation. Abhisit has given his full support to the military to protect Thai sovereignty.
The robust rhetoric from both sides makes conditions for dialogue tricky. The Association of South East Asian Nations has urged a speedy resolution and is seeking to mediate.
Bilateral trade will certainly be affected in the short term, but the figures are too small to make a dent on either country’s economies. Thailand’s central bank said exports to Cambodia were worth less than 1 percent of total annual exports, and were unlikely to cause any damage to the wider economy.
Thailand’s stock market has been subdued since fighting broke out. News of the unrest knocked the benchmark down by 1 percent after a day of gains on Friday, and greater political risk took its toll on Monday as shares in Thai firms which have telecoms, sugar and industrial businesses in Cambodia fell.
There are fears of potential instability in Bangkok, related to a prolonged but so far small protest against the government by the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) over the government’s handling of the border dispute, and failure to prevent the jailing of two Thai nationalists found guilty by a Cambodian court of trespassing and espionage last week.
There are some concerns, but so far no concrete signs, that the issue could give some momentum to the rally. The PAD, a powerful extra-parliamentary force that helped undermine two elected governments led or backed by ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has struggled to get people on the streets to challenge Abhisit. This could be a boon for its campaign.
Police are taking no chances and will seek cabinet approval to impose a strict security law to prevent a repeat of 2008, when the PAD occupied the government’s offices. The PAD activists plan a rally on Friday, seeking to oust the Democrats-led government.
The protest and heated anti-government rhetoric in Bangkok have raised tensions and emotions at the border. The PAD has turned up the pressure on Abhisit and is trying to test his relationship with the military. There might be some wounded pride among the top generals as a result of the PAD’s assertions that the army has been weak and is risking a loss of Thai sovereignty.
Some analysts have suggested the PAD might have conspired with some hawkish generals unhappy with Abhisit to pick a fight with Cambodia as a means to bring down the government and derail elections scheduled to be held this year.
There is no evidence to support this, but in a coup-prone country where the military is deeply politicised and factionalised, it can never be ruled out.
Other experts dismiss this, saying the PAD does not have the bargaining power to orchestrate this, especially while Abhisit’s alliance with the military top brass and the powerful establishment elites remains solid.
Editing by Daniel Magnowski