- Associated Press - Thursday, April 28, 2011

BANGKOK (AP) — They waged deadly artillery duels for a week across a disputed jungle frontier dotted with ancient temples. But the bloodiest clashes to hit Thailand and Cambodia in years were probably more about domestic politics than territory, analysts say.

Both sides agreed to a tentative cease-fire Thursday, a deal many hope will hold after seven days of fighting that killed 15 people and displaced 50,000. Similar accords in the past have failed to secure an end to the conflict, and many believe it’s not over yet.

“Key constituencies in both nations are benefiting too much from the border dispute to allow it to die out completely,” Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on the organization’s website.

Among them: a coup-prone Thai military that could be asserting itself as the country heads toward contentious elections, and a Cambodian strongman bolstered by an upsurge in nationalism who wants to see ally in power in Bangkok instead of an adversary.

The frontier has been contested at least since the 1950s, when France withdrew from Southeast Asia and its colony Cambodia won independence.

But tensions skyrocketed in 2008, when the crumbling 11th-century Preah Vihear Hindu temple — which the International Court of Justice ruled belonged to Cambodia in 1962 — was declared a U.N. World Heritage Site over staunch Thai objections. The sovereignty of the land around the temple remains in dispute, as do other swaths of land containing other temples built during the Khmer Empire’s reign.

Clashes have erupted six times over the past three years, and each skirmish has grown increasingly bloody, with artillery used for the first time during the last battle in February.

However, neither Thai nor Cambodian troops have made any moves to capture territory, and residents in the conflict zone have been left wondering what the crisis is about.

“I have no clue why they are fighting,” 56-year-old grandmother Noi Yingcherddee said in the Thai border town of Surin this week.

“I just want them to stop,” she said. “It’s not worth it, at least not for us.”

Many analysts believe Thailand’s military, which overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup, is flexing its muscle ahead of elections expected in June or July.

The military fears the Thaksin-allied opposition Puea Thai party may win the ballot, and one theory says top commanders may have been using the skirmishes “to create an atmosphere of uncertainty” within Thailand to derail that outcome, said Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“If the country is in crisis,” Mr. Pavin said, “the military can ask, is it ready to hold the vote?”

Duncan McCargo, a Southeast Asia expert who heads the school of international studies at Britain’s University of Leeds, agreed. The border war “reflects the military’s determination to demonstrate that only the armed forces can be trusted as the guardians of Thai national interests,” he said.

The Thai military always has played a prominent role in politics, staging 18 coups since the 1930s. However, it denies that it is now intervening in politics and says — like Cambodia’s military — that it merely has been defending against foreign aggression.

In the current dispute, the army has stymied a proposal to station Indonesian military observers at the border, a plan Cambodia agreed to. On Thursday, though, Thai military and foreign ministry spokesmen contended Thailand did back the plan but were just working out the details. Indonesia’s foreign minister also said his Thai counterpart had signed off on the plan.

The fighting has stirred nationalist fervor on both sides, but many believe it also benefits Cambodian Premier Hun Sen, allowing him to portray himself as a victim of a “bullying” Thailand.

One editorial in a Thai newspaper suggested that Mr. Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, was fomenting the border tensions to gain support at home and divert attention away from what it called the “general public’s increasing resentment toward his dictatorship.”

Mr. Kurlantzick said Mr. Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, is taking advantage of the crisis “to play a larger role in military policymaking, potentially positioning him one day to take over running the country from his father.”

Mr. Hun Sen is known to have a close relationship with MR. Thaksin, who now lives in exile in Dubai. Both men would benefit if current Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva can be portrayed as an ineffective leader who has brought his country to the brink of war.

A weakened MR. Abhisit could mean the Thaksin-allied opposition Puea Thai movement does well in the upcoming poll, said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Southeast Asian expert and former rector of Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

It’s not the first time the border dispute has been linked to domestic politics.

In 2008, Thailand’s so-called Yellow Shirts protesters used the government’s initial support for Cambodia’s heritage bid to batter then-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and force the resignation of his foreign minister.

More recently, the Yellow Shirts — though much weaker than before — have waged sit-ins against Mr. Abhisit over the temple.

Matt Gertken of the U.S.-based think tank Stratfor said internal politics on both sides are driving the fighting, “whether it be because of Thai factions pushing the Cambodian issue in order to shape perceptions ahead of the election, or Cambodia attempting to take advantage of Thailand’s internal divisions” for its own ends.

“Ultimately, the conflicts here are within Thailand and Cambodia, rather than between” them, Mr. McCargo said.

Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Sinfah Tunsarawuth in Bangkok; Thanyarat Doksone in Surin, Thailand; Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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