The border row between Thailand and Cambodia troublingly shows no sign of ending. The two countries have once again traded gunfire, this time near two 12th century temples in an area that is claimed by both sides. It is unclear who fired the first shot, but in three days of fighting 11 soldiers — five on the Thai side, and six on the Cambodian — were killed, and more than 40 wounded. Thousands of civilians have been displaced. This is the second flare-up on the border this year. In February, there was fighting near Preah Vihear, another temple 200 km from the site of the latest confrontation. ASEAN managed to douse the tension the last time, with Indonesia, currently in the chair, playing the mediator. An informal ceasefire came into place, but a peace agreement to post unarmed Indonesian military observers along the border remained on paper because of Thailand's resistance to outside intervention in what it considers a bilateral matter. On the other hand, Cambodia clearly wants to internationalise the issue beyond ASEAN: during the February clashes, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen complained to the United Nations Security Council that Thai forces had invaded his country. In the circumstances, the door appears closed to ASEAN's mediatory initiatives. The cancellation of the Indonesian Foreign Minister's April 25 visit to Bangkok as well as Phnom Penh was the clearest indication of this.
While sizable portions of the Thai-Cambodian border are undemarcated, the main dispute is centred on their rival claims to the Preah Vihear temple. A 1962 International Court of Justice ruling that the 900-year-old Siva temple belonged to Cambodia failed to resolve the problem as it did not address the rival claims to the territory around the temple. In 2008, the temple's listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site further angered Thais, and led to the first military face-off on this issue. In both countries, the issue is handy for politicians to whip up nationalist sentiments and make allegations that sovereignty has been ceded to the other side. While rhetoric is one thing, a military confrontation can hardly provide a solution. The two countries must also keep in mind the risks to the temples. Preah Vihear is held to be one of the finest examples of Khmer architecture outside Angkor; any damage to it would be tragic and self-defeating. As responsible members of the international community, Thailand and Cambodia must both muster the political will to resolve this long-standing row peacefully, soon.