a border dispute heats up: thailand, cambodia and a unesco site

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Border disputes are quite common these days. Some disputes involve strategic islands or territories, others ancestral homelands, and still others water or resource rights.

From the region of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, to a fight between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over Isla Calero, to Japan’s struggles with Russia over the Kuril Islands, even to a dispute between Tennessee and Georgia over which state includes a piece of the Tennessee River, there are many such unresolved disputes ongoing today.

A lesser known and reported border dispute involves a region that is claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia, and is centered on three ancient temples [Preah Vihear, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey] and the approximately five square kilometer mountainous Dangrek jungle region that surrounds them.

The current manifestation of the border dispute, which started heating up again in 2008 when the Preah Vihear temple was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, has its roots in a convoluted past that involved France, an 1867 Franco-Thai treaty, an international court ruling, and a variety of maps produced by players on both sides. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the border between Thailand and Cambodia was mapped by French cartographers. Unfortunately the resulting maps were at odds with prior agreements that were only a few years old. Subsequently, this region is shown as being both in Cambodia and in Thailand, depending on what source is consulted. Adding fuel to the fire, since the French withdrawal from Cambodia in the 1950s, this issue has been used as a rallying cry for local politicians.

Fast forward to 2011. As much about territory as it is about local politics, the dispute is heating up as, according to Reuters, one of three scenarios is possible:

The two governments could be seeking to discredit each other and appeal to nationalists at home, especially as Thailand prepares for a general election expected by July.

A change in government could be in Cambodia’s interests.

The Thai military could also be flexing its muscles to preserve its sizeable stake in Thailand’s political apparatus and to satisfy conservative elites at odds with the country’s powerful opposition forces.

Whatever the case may be and whatever the underlying motivation, this week troops from both sides hurled short-range rockets, flew F-16s, and took up arms against each other in a clash that has lasted almost a week and that has reportedly killed thirteen people thus far. The fighting, which has intensified of late, has forced 50,000 people to move into evacuation shelters, for fear of being hit by a bullet or rocket.

Ceasefire talks may commence soon but plans are in no way solidified.  Thailand wants to proceed, but Cambodia has insisted on a third party mediator, which may end up being a representative from the Association of South East Asian Nations [ASEAN].  Many nations, including the U.S. and China, have urged caution and restraint.

Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail before more people are displaced, injured or killed.

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