PREAH VIHEAR – Cambodia and Thailand sent more troops Thursday to their disputed border region surrounding an 11th century temple — despite agreeing to hold talks next week to avoid military action.
The standoff — now in its third day — is the latest escalation in a long-standing conflict over land that surrounds Preah Vihear temple, which is similar in style to the more famous Angkor Wat in northeastern Cambodia.
The confrontation came to a head last week when UNESCO approved Cambodia's application for World Heritage Site status for Preah Vihear. Protesters in Thailand have decried their government's decision to endorse the application, saying it undermines Thai claims to the territory.
They have also accused Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of bypassing Parliament and backing the UNESCO application in exchange for business contracts for the cronies of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Constitutional Court has ruled in the protesters' favor.
To some extent, the demonstrators appear to be playing to nationalist sentiment to gain support for their larger goal of unseating Samak, whom they accuse of being a proxy for Thaksin.
The border standoff began after three of the protesters crossed into Cambodia on Tuesday to visit the temple and were briefly detained.
Soon afterward, Thai troops deployed to the border. The army has been tightlipped about reasons behind the troop movements, saying only that it is protecting Thai sovereignty, though it's unclear why it thought it was threatened.
Cambodia has accused the Thai troops of crossing into its territory, but Thailand has publicly maintained otherwise.
However, a senior Thai military official acknowledged Wednesday that the troops are on "disputed" ground. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation.
The two countries' defense ministers are to meet next Monday to ease tensions. More than 400 Thai troops — up from 200 on Wednesday — are now facing down 800 Cambodian soldiers — up from 380 — Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said.
The only clashes so far have been between Thai protesters and Thai villagers who resent their lands becoming ground-zero for a political battle.
One such clash took place Thursday about five miles from the temple in Sisaket Province, and about 10 people were injured, said Sisaket Governor Seni Jitkasem.
"It was a chaotic scene. People were beating one another with flag poles and kicking and punching," Seni said. "But the situation is now under control."
Earlier, hundreds of villagers blocked the anti-government protesters from marching to Preah Vihear, some shouting for them to "go home" and stop fomenting trouble. Police stood by a barricade blocking the road to the temple.
"We are Thais. We should be able to talk about this" to settle any differences, villager Ubondej Panthep said. "We don't want to provoke anyone to start shooting."
One protest leader, Pramoj Hoimook, said Cambodians have settled on Thai soil "and we want to correct that."
Samak condemned the Thai protesters for "trying to ignite a conflict." But he has not said anything about why the troops moved to the border.
"Now the troops on both sides are confronting each other. What madness is this? There are people who want to provoke this," Samak told reporters, referring to the anti-government protesters.
Most of the 900 Cambodian villagers living nearby fled their homes when the confrontation began Tuesday. However, some Cambodian and foreign tourists risked possible harm Thursday by visiting the temple. One of them was Liz Shura from New York City.
"It's a little frightening for me, but I don't think I am actually in danger," Shura told an Associated Press reporter, discounting the possibility of violence.