PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – As fighting on the Thai-Cambodian border dragged into a fourth consecutive day, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to the international community to take his side.
In a letter to the United Nations Security Council, which was read out on Cambodian television, he reported that Thai forces fired artillery shells as far as 20 kilometers into Cambodian territory
and urged the UN to hold an urgent meeting “so as to stop Thailand’s aggression”.
On television he declared, “If they stop, we stop. If they fight, we fight.”
The 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear Temple, the United Nations World Heritage Site at the symbolic root of the border conflict, was damaged in the fighting, Cambodian media reported. Cambodian websites published photos of the damaged structure.
About 2,000 families have been evacuated from their homes near the Thai border in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Province and are now staying in schools and pagodas further away from the fighting, said provincial deputy governor Suy Serith.
The Cambodian government as well as the Red Cross and non-governmental organization Oxfam distributed rice, noodles, soy sauce, water, blankets and mosquito nets to the evacuees, Serith said.
However, the villagers who had been forced to leave their homes for the second time since fighting erupted were eager to return home where they left much of their property, including pigs, chickens and cows that needed to be cared for, the deputy governor said.
“Maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow they will come back [home]. They are listening to hear [if the troops are still] fighting or not,” Serith said. “They want peace, they don’t want war.”
In Cambodia’s capital, the situation was calm, with schools, shopping malls and banks open for business. At the Ministry of National Defense, soldiers in uniforms lounged around in the afternoon drinking coffee in an outdoor cafe; higher-ranking commanders sipped Chinese tea in their offices. However, no one was authorized to speak to reporters about the situation.
Border crossings between Thailand and Cambodia also remained open, as both tourists and traders continued to travel between the two countries. The newspaper reported that last month 25% more Thais visited Cambodia than in January of 2010, due in part to a visa exemption which was introduced late last year. The value of trade between the two countries increased to US$2.56 billion in 2010, from $1.67 billion in 2009, and Cambodian exports to Thailand actually rose 176% during the same time period.
Nationalistic Thai groups, who have called on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down, have called on their government to close down border trade in protest against seven Thais who were arrested in contested territory in January. Two of those arrested have been charged with espionage and were last week sentenced to long prison terms.
In Phnom Penh, the only sign that something was amiss were the police officers stationed in front of the Thai Embassy.
Yet some people were concerned the conflict could widen and impact on business and tourism. Two middle-aged ladies, both of whom had lived through Cambodia’s civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime, were worried that the situation could get worse. Both are members of a group called Working Group for Peace in Cambodia, which was formed in the summer of 2008 when the Preah Vihear Temple conflict with Thailand started. The group is now holding almost daily meetings to discuss ways to put a stop to the conflict.
The working group – along with its counterpart organization Working Group for Peace in Thailand – recently drafted a resolution calling for peace, which they plan to send to the press, members of the government and the Thai embassy. In the resolution, they explain that the real cause of the fighting is not the ancient temple on the border, but “the internal political conflict in Thailand and the politicians’ attempt to divert [attention] to nationalism” using the Preah Vihear temple as a target.
“This is [about] nationalism. This is a political issue,” said Prok Vanny, a Cambodian member of the group.
The resolution also urges both sides to withdraw their armed forces as quickly as possible and to use non-violent means to resolve conflicts. Using the border problem for political purposes “will gradually lead to a serious war that will be more difficult to bring to an end,” the resolution warns.
Last year, The Working Group for Peace in Cambodia organized a joint gathering in Cambodia’s tourist town of Siem Reap with 30 participants from Thailand and 30 from Cambodia. But the tensions between Cambodia and Thailand – which is known in Cambodia by its old name “Siam” – go back centuries.
In the 15th century, the Thais sacked Angkor, then the heart of the Khmer Empire. At the end of the 16th century, the Cambodian capital of Lovek fell to the Siamese and in the 18th century, the Siamese burned Phnom Penh. When the French first arrived in Cambodia in the 19th century, the Cambodian king was a subject to the king of Siam. During World War II, Thailand annexed several Cambodian provinces.
Many people in Cambodia today still harbor a distrust for Thailand, which they say took much of Cambodia’s territory over the centuries. “Thais are robbers. Thais stole many things from Cambodia. Thais want something that is not theirs,” said one student in Phnom Penh. “It’s not their temple, it’s our temple.”
But the Working Groups for Peace in Thailand and Cambodia want to temper such nationalistic feelings before they spiral, as they have in Thailand.
“We want to eradicate the hatred between the two nations because it’s been there for many centuries. We want to build a good relationship so we can shake hands and treat each other like brother and sister because we are neighbors,” said Prak Sokhany, a Cambodian member of the group. “It’s our long-term goal.”