Tensions are brewing once again on the Cambodia-Thailand border as controversial construction work has led the neighbouring country to bolster its forces, raising fears of renewed clashes in 2015, military and government officials said yesterday.
Un Chinda, deputy governor of Preah Vihear province, said road work close to the border, in an area claimed by Cambodia but which Thailand says had previously been agreed on as neutral territory, sparked the dispute.
Chinda said he received an “informal letter from the Thai side” earlier this week “requesting that we postpone the road construction … and refill land” already excavated.
“We agreed with Thailand’s request to postpone the road construction, but we have not agreed to refill the land for the road as the construction will be ongoing because it is under the sovereignty of Cambodia,” he said. “The road construction is far … from the An Ses border, where the barbed wire between the two countries was placed.”
Chinda said that about 200 Thai soldiers have been deployed to the area, but denied reports that Cambodia had bolstered its own forces.
“We have not brought in any reinforcements, but the current military base along the border is ready to protect [the area] if Thai soldiers continue to move into our territory,” he said.
Chinda also denied reports of current plans to build a casino and hotel in the area, claiming that the construction was limited to a new road, which is being built next to an existing statue.
“We have never cared about construction in Thai territory, but when we build something in our territory, Thailand always requests we stop, reinforces troops and closes the border,” he said, explaining that the An Ses, or Chong Arn Mar, border pass had been shut since early this week.
Chinda added that Hun Manet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son and a lieutenant-general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, has been in the area since Tuesday monitoring the situation.
A military official in Preah Vihear, who asked not to be named, said high-ranking military officials from Cambodia and Thailand are scheduled to meet on January 7.
But despite claims that the situation is under control, Sok Phal, a deputy commander in RCAF who was in Preah Vihear this week, told the Post that the standoff had already turned violent.
According to Phal, earlier this week, Thai soldiers attempted to enter the disputed territory and opened fire, leading Cambodian troops to shoot back in “self-defence”.
“Cambodians shot back and they [the Thai soldiers] were shot. They didn’t die; they were shot in the legs. But now there is not much information because they closed the area,” he said, adding that a “special envoy” had been sent to the border to investigate the clash.
Other Cambodian officials denied yesterday that any shooting had occurred, while Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached.
Phal added that he feared renewed clashes. “They [Cambodia] are sending more troops to the mountains. Maybe in the new year they are fighting again if Thailand does not respect [Cambodia’s] sovereignty.”
Vannarith Chheang, a lecturer in Asia-Pacific studies at the University of Leeds in England and a senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, agreed that fighting could be on the horizon.
“The border tension between Cambodia and Thailand can possibly relapse into an armed conflict if there is no strong and effective mechanism to build trust and confidence between the two leaders of both countries,” he said by email.
He added that Thailand’s failure to implement the International Court of Justice’s ruling last year that part of the hotly contested vicinity around Preah Vihear Temple largely belongs to Cambodia “poses a serious threat”.
Fatal clashes along the border prompted Cambodia to ask the ICJ for a new ruling on land around the temple in 2011.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE