Preah Vihear province
Fighting broke out last night for the third time in three days along the contentious border near Preah Vihear temple, breaking a truce brokered by military commanders.
Pen Pong, a military official stationed at Sa Em village, said clashes began at around 6:30pm, with both sides exchanging 105mm artillery fire and BM-40 rockets in the areas of Phnom Trop, Chak Chreng and Sambok Khmum close to the temple. He added that dozens of the Thai shells have fallen as far as Sa Em, which lies 27 kilometres inside Cambodian territory.
Ten Navun, an officer in Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Battalion 404, said shells were still falling as of 10:15pm.
“We are still attacking each other now and the shelling is continuing,” Ten Navun said by phone, against a backdrop of artillery fire. “I am sorry I can’t say more, because the enemy might shoot me.”
No casualty figures could be confirmed as of press time, though sources in both countries reported injuries on both sides.
“There are some injured troops from the two sides but I don’t know how many of them,” said Chin Vannak, a military official stationed along the border.
“We cannot calculate when the fighting will be stopped as troops from both sides are still fighting.”
A military officer in Military Region 5 also reported that about 2,000 Thai paratroopers were deployed along the border in O’Beichoan commune, in Banteay Meanchey province’s O’Chrou district, more than 100 kilometres from Preah Vihear temple.
During the fighting, Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote to United Nations Security Council President Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, denouncing Thailand’s “full-scale armed aggression” against Cambodia and calling for the council to intervene to halt the Thai action.
“This fresh onslaught by the Thai armed forces has resulted in more human casualties and damages to the temple of Preah Vihear as well as other properties,” he wrote.
“Considering [these] recent extremely grave aggressions by Thailand, which has gravely threatened peace and stability in the region, I earnestly request Your Excellency to convene an urgent session of the [UNSC] so as to stop Thailand’s aggression.”
Clashes first erupted on Friday afternoon along an eight-kilometre stretch of the border near the temple at Phnom Trop, Ta Thav, Veal Entry and Chak Chreng. Firefights also broke out on Saturday morning, with the skirmishes ultimately leaving two Cambodian soldiers and one villager dead and 23 soldiers wounded, RCAF officials said. Thai state media reported that one Thai soldier and one civilian had been killed and 14 Thai soldiers had been wounded.
Cambodian officials say the clashes were triggered when Thai troops crossed onto Cambodian soil and opened fire. Thailand has claimed, however, that Cambodian troops were the source of the hostilities. Last night, the sides again blamed one another for re-igniting battle.
In a statement yesterday evening, the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit claimed that heavy Thai shelling on Cambodian positions had caused the collapse of a wing of the eleventh-century Khmer temple.
“A wing of our Preah Vihear Temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment,” the statement quoted an unnamed Cambodian military commander as saying.
“The Thai army began shooting at us first, we are taking self-defence and retaliatory measures, now.”
Thai Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told the AFP news agency, however, that Cambodian troops touched off last night’s fighting by igniting “fireworks” and discharging their weapons.
“Thailand has retaliated. The fighting is still going on. There are no reports of casualties,” he said.
The two sides have exchanged fire in the area on several occasions since 2008, when Preah Vihear temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for Cambodia over Thai objections. Thailand subsequently concentrated military forces in the area with the Cambodian military responding in kind. At least seven soldiers in total from both sides had been killed since 2008 prior to the most recent round of clashes.
Sar Thavy, deputy governor of Preah Vihear province, said roughly 1,000 families living near the temple had been evacuated to avoid weapons and artillery fire. The Thai foreign ministry said 3,000 Thai civilians had been evacuated.
Wat Keo Sekha Kirisvara, a pagoda adjacent to the temple, was also “seriously damaged” in last night’s clashes, said Sun Saing, the pagoda’s abbot. The pagoda was the source of controversy last week, when Thai officials including Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva demanded that a Cambodian flag flying at the site be removed. In addition, bullet holes and surface-level damage were visible on the temple yesterday in the aftermath of clashes on Friday and Saturday.
Heam Vuthy said the damage to the temple would be reported to UNESCO for the body to “take measures” to address the issue. Abhisit, meanwhile, proposed that Preah Vihear’s UNESCO registration be suspended, Thai state media reported.
The recent round of hostilities come following the arrest in late December of seven Thai nationals including a parliamentarian along the border in Banteay Meanchey province, several hundred kilometres from Preah Vihear.
Five members of the group, including MP Panich Vikitsreth, were released last month on suspended sentences after being convicted of illegal entry. The other two, which included Veera Somkwamkid, a high-profile member of Thailand’s nationalist Yellow Shirt movement – were sentenced to lengthy jail terms on espionage charges.
Abhisit has been under intense pressure at home from Yellow Shirts incensed by Veera’s conviction and Preah Vihear’s UNESCO registration. The Yellow Shirts staged street protests in Bangkok last week urging Abhisit to take a harder line against Cambodia and to push back against alleged encroachment along the border.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear temple sits within Cambodian territory, though the two sides continue to disagree over the sovereignty of territory in the surrounding area.