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Thai-Viet fighting slackens but war of words mounts

Fighting between Thailand and Vietnam has tapered off in the ill-defined Cambodian frontier areas. Thai air strikes and artillery barrages reportedly left at least 72 Vietnamese dead in fighting June 23 and 24, as Vietnamese-led forces launched an assault on anti-Vietnamese Khmer Serei (Free Khmer) refugees on both sides of the border.

But the results of the worst fighting between the two countries may be only beginning to be heard.

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1. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose foreign ministers are meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have unanimously condemned the Vietnamese attack. They have seconded Thailand's call for United Nations observers on the border. For the moment, at least, voices of those relatively sympathetic to Vietnam (Indonesia and Malaysia) have been stilled. (Other ASEAN members include Singapore, Thailand, and the Philipines.)

2. The prospect of more fighting grows. According to some news reports, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Vietnamese-led troops have now massed near the Thai border within "striking distance" of Thailand.

Thai frontier officials are said to be disturbed by reports that the Vietnamese are fanning out along a 50-mile stretch of border north and south of the Cambodian frontier town of Poipet. Vietnam apparently wants to keep the Khmer Rouge from making gains during the current wet season.

In Ankara, Turkey, US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie was quoted as saying the strikes could be followed by more attacks.

3. The fighting puts Thailand further into China's camp. If Vietnam's attacks grow, the possibility of a "second Chinese military lesson" against Vietnam also grows. China has already condemned the Vietnamese attack.

Beyond this, the attacks confirm ASEAN nations' worst suspicions about Vietnam: that Vietnam's representatives are unreliable.

The present attack followed Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach's diplomatic forays last month to Malaysia and Thailand. Only weeks after the offers of peace, Vietnamese guns opened fire.

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For some, this was all too reminiscent of late 1978, when Vietnamese representatives toured the region assuring peaceful intentions. But by early 1979, Vietnamese tanks had rolled into Cambodia.

This latest attack further destroys Vietnam's credibility and weakens the voices of those who urge peaceful dealings with Hanoi. Thus, according to one line of reasoning, it is likely to reinforce Vietnam's economic and political isolation at the hands of ASEAN, China, and the United States.

On Thursday, however, Thailand lifted a temporary freeze on aid shipments to Cambodia less than one day after imposing it, according to reports from Bangkok.

For its part, Vietnam denies attacking Thai territory -- the latest disavowal coming from Vietnamese Foreign Minister Thach during a June 25 meeting with US Ambassador to Thailand Morton Abramowitz.

The Vietnamese also claim the border is ill-defined. It is true there are conflicting claims as to where the Vietnamese attacked. But the Vietnamese-led thrust appeared to penetrate so deeply that the Thais felt compelled to respond.

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