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High farce at the Thai-Cambodian border

Heng Sinith / AP

A Cambodian Buddhist monk walks toward the Cambodia's 11th century Hindu Preah Vihear temple on Tuesday.

BANGKOK, Thailand – It’s not so much High Noon as High Farce at the Thai-Cambodia border.

The current border spat would be almost laughable if it were not for the suffering it’s inflicting on villagers on both sides of the disputed frontier, thousands of whom have been forced from their homes.

The conflict ostensibly is about the ownership of an 11th century temple called Preah Vihear, described by UNESCO as an “outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture.”

But in reality it has more to do with the sorry state of Thai politics than an ancient Hindu relic.


Arguing over a 1962 decision
The area in dispute was quieter Tuesday after four days of skirmishes between the Thai and Cambodian armies that are reported to have killed several people and damaged the very temple they claim to hold so dear.

Both sides have blamed each other for starting the conflict.

DAMIR SAGOLJ / Reuters

A Cambodian soldier polishes his boots at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia on Tuesday.

The two countries have argued over their border for years, though the World Court was supposed to have put the temple dispute to rest in 1962 when it was awarded to Cambodia.

Thailand grudgingly accepted the ruling, but the two countries have continued to squabble over land surrounding the temple.

The spat would probably have remained low key had the issue not been embraced by Thailand's "yellow shirt" nationalist movement, whose more hard line members are demanding Thailand take the temple – and much else – by force.

‘Yellow shirts’ take center stage, again
The yellow shirts are formally known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they are middle-class denizens looking to protect their own interests – a vocal minority in a country where most people are poor farmers.

They shot to prominence when they led street protests in 2008 that were instrumental to bringing down the then-Thai government (remember the occupation of Bangkok’s airports?).

The current Thai administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva owes its existence to them, and there are strong links between the yellow shirts and members of his party (the foreign minister is a former yellow shirt supporter).

In 2008, the yellow shirts were backed by Thailand's royalist elite and the Bangkok middle class. More recently, its influence has waned and the movement has split. The border agitation is being led by a nastier rump, which is organizing fresh anti-government protests – in effect, turning on the government it helped create.

Heng Sinith / AP

A Cambodian Buddhist monk, center, stands with other refugees who fled from disputed border, as they sit on roadside about 12 miles east of the famed Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia on Tuesday.

Even before the current flare-up, the yellow shirts sent their own supporters on provocative incursions across the border.

The prime minister, though now an object of their scorn, appears unwilling to stand up to them, though their border crusade seems to enjoy little popular support. Instead, he has been upping his own nationalist rhetoric.

This may be partly realpolitik. The red shirt opposition movement supposedly vanquished in an army crackdown last year is back on the streets with large protests, the size of which have shaken Abhisit and his army backers.

Elections are due later this year, and Abhisit may think wrapping himself in the flag is a useful electoral tactic.

Army may flex its muscles
The army itself is the real power in Thailand, its clout enhanced by last year’s red shirt crackdown. Some 89 people died during the upheaval.

The royalist yellow shirts have had strong links to the army, which now has a new commander who isn't shy in his contempt for elected politicians.

It’s significant that the Thai army began an artillery barrage last Friday just as Thailand's foreign minister was sitting down for talks in Cambodia.

There have been dark murmurings about the possibility of yet another military coup, a "coup to end coups," as one newspaper described it. That's dangerous mumbo-jumbo to most people, but the fact that some are taking it seriously is a sad reflection on Thailand's politics.

It’s against this background that the border drama is being played out.

The yellow shirts are threatening to take their protests to the border Friday, though local Thai village leaders have made it known they are not welcome.

Cambodia waits it out
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be enjoying himself. He is a veteran political street-fighter, always happy to pick a fight with his bigger neighbor.

He is now calling for outside intervention, apparently aware that the weight of international law appears to be with Cambodia.

Thailand has often been applauded for its deft and low key diplomacy. Not this time, and the kingdom risks being labeled as a petulant regional bully, its prime minister in thrall to yellow-shirted extremists and an unaccountable army.