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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.

Several hundred members of the group, called the “Thai Patriots Network,” are now encamped around the Thai prime minister’s compound. They are demanding the government reclaim the disputed zone.

The conflict, however, has become intractable in part because its members walked into the militarized area with video cameras to prove Thai sovereignty.

The patriots network is largely a regrouping of the right-wing “Yellow Shirts” faction, which stormed Bangkok’s chief airport in 2008 to help oust Thailand’s ruling party. (Fed up with an “uneducated” public electing leaders they deemed corrupt, the group’s leaders proposed appointing all but 30 percent of the country’s politicians.)

The patriot network is also backed by a hardline Buddhist sect called “Santi Asok” whose members wear loose-fitting blue jumpsuits. The nationalists’ core leader is Chamlong Srimuang, a 75-year-old former army general, former coup leader and Santi Asok devotee.

The ex-general now attracts crowds with a mix of flag-waving rhetoric and a militant tone uncommon to Buddhist spiritual leaders. A banner at the encampment’s gate depicts the World Trade Center on fire with the Thai-language warning, “Wealth is the cause of violence.”

At the encampment, Chamlong has excited crowds with talk of Thai F-15 fighter jets zooming toward the disputed zone. He has readied them to siege government buildings in an attempt to expel Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has not adequately defended Thai soil, Chamlong said.

Despite his aggressive stance, Chamlong’s credentials as a pious Buddhist are seldom questioned by his followers. At the rally site, visitors line up to prostrate at his feet, a sign of respect typically reserved for monks and royalty. He has famously vowed to preserve his spiritual purity by sleeping on a floor mat and remaining celibate, even though he is married.

At his ongoing rallies, the firebrand Buddhist has even riled up elderly devotees with an itch to fight.

“Just give me training. Show me how to shoot or throw hand grenades and I’ll fight for free,” said Krungsri Thitapura, a 77-year-old protester with silver whiskers and frail limbs. “I remember when the Khmer Rogue sent Cambodians running across the border. We helped them then. The old men in Cambodia should remember what we did for them.”

The Thai nationalists are equally fired up by the detention of their martyrs. Two network members remain in a Phnom Penh prison cell after Cambodian troops captured them for trespassing into the disputed zone in December.

Though Thai sympathizers have hailed their bravery, the Cambodian courts charged the pair with espionage.

Veera Somkwamkid has received an eight-year prison sentence and his accompanying aide, Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, received a six-year sentence. Five others on the trek, including a parliamentarian with the prime minister’s own party, were released after roughly a month in prison.

“We fight this case to confirm the truth. This land is Thai!,” said Veera’s attorney, Karun Sai-ngam, outside the Thai premier’s compound on Friday.

He had just returned from the Cambodian capital with a declaration: His client would not concede to their courts and deny the soil’s Thai ownership. “He has chosen the fighting path,” Karun said.

As the border fighting continues in fits and starts, the U.N. Security Council is looking over reports from both sides insisting the other shot first.

Indonesia’s foreign minister has flown between Thailand and Cambodia to broker peace on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Cambodian Premier Hun Sen has even raised the possibility of bringing in U.N. peacekeeping troops.

“We’re not angry, but we are prepared for the clashing,” said Prawat, the school headmaster. “We can’t allow Thailand to sacrifice its honor.”