PRASAT, Thailand – Thai and Cambodian troops broke a brief cease-fire and clashed for an eighth day Friday, shattering hopes of a quick end to a long-running border conflict. The death toll rose to 16.
The fighting eased shortly after dawn and guns were silent the rest of the day as nearly 100,000 displaced residents on both sides waited to see if the worst skirmishes in years between the two Southeast Asian neighbors 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 20 miles 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 Thursday in a meeting at the disputed border. But Cambodian Col. Suos Sothea said the Thai army fired artillery shells into Cambodia again 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."
The director of Phanom Dongrak hospital, about 12 miles 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.