Thai and Cambodian troops broke a brief ceasefire and clashed for an eighth day on Friday, shattering hopes of a quick end to a long-running border conflict that has forced nearly 100,000 villagers to flee. The death toll rose to 16.
Fighting erupted in the morning and again briefly on Friday, both countries’ troops said as displaced residents on each side waited to see if the worst skirmishes in years between the Southeast Asian neighbours might finally end.
“I wish both sides could talk, so that there is no more fighting,” said Boonteung Somsed, a 58-year-old Thai construction worker who fled to the village of Prasat, about 30 km from the border.
“Every time a soldier picks up a weapon,” he said, “a village has to run away from home.”
Thailand and Cambodia have clashed six times since 2008 over the border, where several crumbling Hindu temples built nearly 1,000 years ago during the Khmer Empire sit atop cliffs and in jungles mined in wars past. The land has been disputed for more than half a century, but analysts say domestic politics on both sides is driving the conflict as much as any real disagreement between the countries.
Field commanders agreed to the brief truce on Thursday in a meeting at the disputed border. But Cambodian Col. Suos Sothea said the Thai Army again fired artillery shells into Cambodia early Friday and small arms fire crackled anew around the Ta Krabey temple, which is in a disputed area.
“We cannot trust the Thais,” he said. “Yesterday they said they’d stop fighting and now they are attacking us again.”
Thai Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said there had been light clashes late Thursday as well as early Friday. He blamed Cambodia for breaking the deal, saying its “local units might not agree to the talks as easily as their commanders did.”
Col. Sansern told reporters in Bangkok that the Thai Army sent a 10-member delegation of middle-ranking officers across the border into Cambodia to meet with their counterparts again Friday on how to avoid further clashes. “The first step is to sustain the truce, then we can take further steps for talks,” he said.
The director of Phanom Dongrak hospital, about 20 km from the border, confirmed one Thai soldier was killed late Thursday, bringing the total dead to 15 soldiers and one civilian.
Thai authorities say the fighting has uprooted 51,000 people from their homes. Cambodia’s Red Cross says more than 45,000 people there have also fled over the past week.
“I want both countries to stop fighting, so that I can go home,” said 37-year-old, Saman Yingnaram, a farmer in Prasat. “My cassava field will be sabotaged by (insects) by the time I return.”
On Thursday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said his Thai counterpart had agreed to allow Indonesian observers, but there was no word on when they would arrive. Cambodia had already agreed to the deployment.
Indonesia, which currently chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, offered to provide the observers after the last round of fighting in February.
Few believe the conflict will lead to full-scale war and neither side appears to be trying to capture territory.
Some believe Thailand’s military fears the possible outcome of elections expected in June or July and is trying to rally Thais behind it. Thai media have suggested Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, was fomenting border tensions to distract his public.
Both militaries have said they were merely defending against foreign aggression.