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Disputed border set to reopen

Cambodia and Thailand have begun a coordinated withdrawal of troops from Preah Vihear temple in preparation for the reopening of the temple’s international border crossing next week, military officials from both countries said.

The crossing has been closed since July 2008, when the disputed temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, triggering a military build-up along the border
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Sao Socheat, deputy commander of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Military Region Four, said yesterday that troops started pulling back to their bases around 30 kilometres from the temple on Sunday, in line with an agreement with Bangkok.

“The armed forces of Cambodia and Thailand [started] being withdrawn from the frontline in front of Preah Vihear temple on Sunday and they destroyed the trenches before they left,” he said.

“Withdrawal is good for both sides, and more tourists will visit temple after the gate is opened.”

Hang Soth, secretary general of the Preah Vihear National Authority, said the border gate at the disputed temple would be reopened in the first week of December, allowing tourists to once again access the temple from the Thai side.

Colonel Veerachon Sukondhadhpatipak, deputy spokesman of the Royal Thai Army, confirmed the border would be reopened, but said he was unsure of the exact schedule for the troop withdrawal.

“At the policy level, it has been agreed,” he said.

Thani Thongphakdi, deputy spokesman of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he was “not aware” of any decision regarding the border crossing.

Since its closure in mid-2008, periodic clashes between Cambodian and Thai soldiers have resulted in the deaths of at least seven troops on both sides. Since then, tourists have been restricted to entering the hilltop temple from inside Cambodia, preventing a larger influx of visitors from Thailand, which boasts better access to the temple.

Analysts say the reopening of the border could mark a significant step forward for the fraught relationship between the two countries.

Michael Montesano, a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said he was unsurprised to hear an agreement may have been reached, saying it would likely be the result of the same process of “ongoing contact” that resulted in the resignation of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in August.

The appointment of Thaksin last year plunged relations to their lowest point in years, leading Bangkok to withdraw its ambassador in protest.

“The dismissal of Thaksin as an advisor to Hun Sen was clearly not a one-off,” Montesano said. The thaw has been spurred, he added, by the strengthening of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat Party government in relation to the nationalist Yellow Shirt movement, which has taken a hawkish line on the Preah Vihear temple dispute.

“The bottom line is this convergence of greater Democrat Party government confidence vis-à-vis the Yellow Shirts, as well as a process of rapprochement that has been going on for some time,” he said.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the reopening of the border would be a “small step forward”, but that the disagreement at the heart of the temple dispute was still unresolved.

“Until Thailand sorts out its own issues – I think the Yellow Shirts are still playing the nationalist card – [Preah Vihear] will continue to be an issue,” he said. “We’ll wait and see when the border opens.”

Though an influx of tourists to Preah Vihear could be a sign of better things to come, Montesano said the “crucial barometer” of the bilateral relationship will be whether Cambodia continues to allow fugitive Red Shirt leaders a sanctuary in Cambodia.

The government deported two Red Shirt leaders to Thailand in July, after they were found hiding out in Siem Reap province, but has repeatedly denied reports that other senior figures are living in Cambodia.

Long Sovan, chairman of Preah Vihear provincial council, said the planned reopening of the border was set to be preceded by a visit of a provincial delegation to Thailand’s Sisaket province yesterday.

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