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Troops clash on Thai-Cambodia border

A disputed Hindu temple is the focal point of a struggle to preserve national honor.

Cambodia army, Thailand-Cambodia border
A Cambodian soldier guards an area near the Preah Vihear temple on Feb. 6, 2011. (Khem Sovannara/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — For days, primary school headmaster Prawat Panomsai warned his pupils that war was nigh.

When the shells finally rained down on Friday, the students knew just what to do. They ran like mad into their backlot bunker, a few drainage pipes fortified with sand bags, and listened as mortar rounds quaked hilltops along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Thai and Cambodian forces remain locked in tit-for-tat shooting and shelling near Phreah Vihear, an 11th-century Hindu temple and United Nations heritage site. Both sides claim the other invaded its sovereign territory.

The clashes have obliterated villagers’ homes and even demolished parts of the stone temple. So far, 34 Thais are injured, one Thai civilian and one Thai soldier are dead, and troops have evacuated more than 6,000 Thais living in the conflict zone.

Reports are more murky from Cambodia where, according to official reports, at least two soldiers were killed. Some Thai newspapers, however, report Cambodian casualties in the dozens.

“It’s obvious the troops have been preparing for the big fight,” said Prawat, whose school sits just inside the militarized zone. “They’ve been bringing tanks, armed vehicles and a ton of soldiers up the mountain. I’ve even found artillery cannons hidden in the jungle. If they go full force, there’s no way the Cambodians will survive.”

The two nations are ostensibly warring over less than two square miles of scrubby land. But this disputed territory — devoid of gems, oil or any valuable resource — has also become the focal point of a struggle to preserve national honor and save political face.

In August 2010, GlobalPost’s Patrick Winn traveled to the border to cover tensions between Cambodia and Thailand in this On Location video:

The turf has been disputed since the early 1900s when French colonialists, then in control of Cambodia, ignored the natural watershed and drew up the border to keep the temple on their side. Thais have since challenged these colonial maps and a 1962 World Court ruled that the ruins are rightly Cambodian.

The spat was largely forgotten until 2008, when the U.N. hailed the temple as World Heritage site within Cambodia. The Thai military subsequently ringed the site with troops and the Cambodians followed suit.

Though gunfire has broken out sporadically since then, leading to fewer than 10 acknowledged deaths on either side in recent years, the two armies have largely stared at one another in silence as their leaders struggled to settle the quarrel diplomatically.

Diplomacy, however, has not satisfied a faction of Thai nationalists that has helped draw Thailand into conflict. In recent weeks, they have practically bayed for aggressive action.