PRASAT, Thailand (Reuters) - The thousands of Thai villagers sheltering in schools and huddled under tarpaulin sheets are puzzled as to why the Cambodian neighbors they see every day have become their country’s enemies overnight.
Rocket-propelled grenades and fierce shelling marked the start of a new round of conflict at a normally peaceful stretch of the disputed border and sent them fleeing from their villages on Friday, killing at least 11 soldiers on both sides in two days of clashes.
They will never know who is to blame for breaching a fragile ceasefire agreed two months ago after fighting 150 km (90 miles) away. Those caught up in the worst border fighting in two decades fear ties with their neighbors, many of whom are blood relatives, may never be the same.
“They are like our brothers and sisters, we have no reason to fight. We don’t know what happened, we don’t know why it happened but we’re all scared,” said Wanchai Chaensit, 48, a rubber farmer who fled his village 3 km from the clashes.
Wanchai sits with his wife and three children at a village school 30 km away from the conflict zone, cross-legged on a sheet of cardboard under a plastic sheet tied to the side of his small tractor. This makeshift camp has become his home for the past two days and he fears the fighting will not be over soon.
“Even here, we don’t feel safe. We left the village as soon as we heard the loud explosions. I hope the two governments can have dialogue and end this. We all live in peace with our neighbors and never expected this to happen.”
But the chances of meaningful talks appear slim as both sides with huge pride at stake continue to blame the other for triggering the clashes.
Cambodia ramped up the rhetoric on Saturday, accusing Thailand of using cluster munitions and “poisonous gas” and seeking to take control two 12th Century Hindu temples claimed by both countries.
Thailand said the accusations were “groundless.” It says the Ta Moan and Ta Krabey temples are in its Surin province, according to a 1947 map but Cambodia says the ancient, stone-walled temples are in its Oddar Meanchey province.
Calls by the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which both countries are members, to find a lasting solution after four days of clashes in February have not been met as both countries disagree over how to settle the dispute.
At the village school in Prasat in Surin, scruffy-looking, bare-footed children played as scores of people queued for food at the makeshift camp. Some elderly people were treated for dehydration, family pets roamed and women dozed on straw mats.
Others fanned themselves with cardboard sheets in classrooms. Many of those evacuated were ethnic-Khmer, proficient in Thai and Cambodian dialects.
A cursory visit late on Saturday by the regional army commander, Lieutenant-General Thawatchai Samutsakorn, and dozens of troops helped ease the boredom in a camp with little to do but wait for a ceasefire.
But the five minutes the charismatic general spent dishing out food and smiling for the television cameras and his promise to protect Thailand’s sovereignty did little to boost morale and failed to answer the key question on everyone‘s’ minds.
“We’ve lived in peace for decades with Cambodians, we see them every day. Why are the soldiers fighting?” said Suthep Pringpom, 49.
“Who is causing this problem? I‘m surprised it happened and I‘m scared that this is the start of something bad.”
Editing by Alison Williams