THAILAND-CAMBODIA: Conflict-displaced returning home

Monday, February 14, 2011

BANGKOK, 14 February 2011 (IRIN) - Thousands of residents displaced by recent fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border have begun returning homes, aid officials say.

"Quite a large number, if not all, have returned," Sawanit Kongsiri, assistant secretary-general of the Thai Red Cross Society and former deputy foreign minister, told IRIN on 14 February.

More than 35,000 people on both sides of the border fled their homes near the disputed Preah Vihear temple following a series of military clashes between the two countries, which began 4 February. Both countries claim ownership of the 11th century Hindu temple, a 2008-registered UN World Heritage Site.

Ten Thai villages in Sisaket Province were directly affected when the exchange of military fire began, forcing about 20,000 into 30 temporary shelters, the Thai Red Cross reported.

In Cambodia, the situation remains more fluid, with many of the displaced still reluctant to return home. Of the original 17,500 reportedly displaced, about 11,000 are still being assisted at a 50 hectare former military base near the border.

"It's still unclear how many have actually returned. People just don't feel secure," said Men Neary Sopheak, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodian Red Cross, noting that many residents were going home to check on their fields and livestock, only to return to the base in the evening. "We aren't able to advise people what to do," Ross Sovann, deputy secretary-general of Cambodia's National Committee for Disaster Management, added.

"At this point, all of us are awaiting the outcome of today's UN meeting in New York." Thailand and Cambodia were scheduled to present their positions on 14 February before the UN Security Council (UNSC) in New York.

The Thai authorities have long maintained the ongoing dispute should be resolved bilaterally, while Cambodia continues to advocate for outside intervention. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa, whose country is chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has offered to mediate, will also attend the UNSC session.

"ASEAN chair's attendance at the UNSC meeting represents an evolution of ASEAN's effort to resolve bilateral disputes among its member states as provided for by the ASEAN Charter," said ASEAN Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan. "This is particularly important as it will set a precedence for future ASEAN dispute settlement mechanisms."