Bangkok: Thailand`s Prime Minister called on Sunday for a peaceful solution to a border dispute with Cambodia, but warned Thai soldiers will defend national sovereignty if attacked.
The fiercest border clashes in years erupted on Friday and Saturday between troops stationed along the border. Sporadic artillery fire left at least five people dead — one civilian and one soldier from Thailand and one civilian and two soldiers from Cambodia. A shaky ceasefire reached on Saturday appeared to be holding.
Both sides have blamed each other for the fighting, which also caused minor damage to the landmark 11th century Preah Vihear temple near a strip of disputed land that Thai nationalists have seized on as a domestic political issue.
"I insist that the dispute on the border issues must be solved through nonviolent means," Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajvia said in his weekly Sunday morning address to the nation. "Thailand never thought of invading anyone, but if our sovereignty is violated, we have to protect it ultimately."
Commanders stationed on both sides of the border met on Sunday, saying they would continue to respect the cease-fire and pledges not to deploy more troops to the area. They also agreed that thousands of residents evacuated from the area would be allowed to return home.
"The situation along the disputed border is going back to normal, but Cambodia still maintains its positions of self-defence," said Major General Srey Doek, commander of the Cambodian forces based at Preah Vihear temple.
Thai Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd indicated the return of residents would not happen immediately.
"We have to consider if it`s safe for villagers to return, area by area," he said. "If the two sides keep their promises and the situation gets resolved, eventually all of them will go back. But safety for the villagers must come first."
Thailand`s Foreign Ministry says at least 3,000 people have fled their homes, while Cambodian authorities say about 1,000 families were evacuated on their side.
Tensions between the Southeast Asian nations have risen in recent days because of demonstrations in the Thai capital, Bangkok, demanding that the government oust Cambodians from land near the Preah Vihear temple. Thai nationalists claim the land is actually part of Thailand.
The Thai demonstrators call themselves the People`s Alliance for Democracy — the same group that in 2008 occupied the Thai prime minister`s offices and Bangkok`s two airports in a bid to force out two previous governments. They called Saturday night for Abhisit and his Cabinet to step down, saying they had failed to safeguard the country`s sovereignty. Several thousand attended the protest, a much smaller turnout than anti-government rallies in the past.
The rally by the PAD — also known as the Yellow Shirts — has raised tensions in a country still recovering from political violence last year in which about 90 people died. Those protests were launched by a rival anti-government group, known as the Red Shirts.
While a full-blown war is unlikely, nationalist passions are inflamed in both countries — with no clear way to settle the long-standing territorial dispute surrounding the temple, built during a time when Cambodia`s Khmer empire ruled over much of Thailand.
The temple is a UN World Heritage Site that belongs to Cambodia under a 1962 World Court ruling disputed by many Thais.