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A unit of RFAC troops stationed at Preah Vihear in 2013.
A unit of RFAC troops stationed at Preah Vihear in 2013. Heng Chivoan

Drawdown of troops at Preah Vihear

Cambodia is quietly reducing troop numbers on the contentious shared border with Thailand in Preah Vihear province.

Citing the current good relations with the Kingdom’s western neighbour, Ministry of Defence spokesman Chhum Socheath yesterday said members of three units had been ordered to leave the border for their respective bases.

Socheath declined to reveal the number of troops and the status of the withdrawal, though a source with knowledge of the decision said three battalions, amounting to a few hundred soldiers, were being pulled out.

“Our military personnel will not go back to their base on the front line while the situation remains calm and there is good cooperation between Cambodia and Thailand,” Socheath said.

Deadly skirmishes occurred periodically along the border from 2008 to 2011 after the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple was listed as a Cambodian UNESCO World Heritage site against Thailand’s wishes.

Socheath said the moves were part of the implementation of the 2013 International Court of Justice ruling, which declared that a 1962 ICJ judgment gave Cambodia sovereignty over the temple and a small surrounding promontory, but left a large area still in dispute.

The withdrawal was also in line with plans to strengthen the capacity of RCAF, he added.

According to Socheath, the three units include members of Brigade 1, the elite 911 brigade and another artillery unit.

A source with knowledge of the decision confirmed the order involved Brigade 1, based in Oudong, though named the gendarmerie and the Prime Minister’s Body Guard Unit as the other units.

The source said a rotating set of battalions from Brigade 1 had been posted to the border as temporary reinforcements since 2008.

Though a full-strength battalion constitutes more than 400 soldiers, Brigade 1’s border battalion strength stood at just over 100 personnel as of January, the source said.

Spokesmen from the body guard unit, gendarmerie and 911 brigade were unavailable for comment yesterday.

Meas Yoeun, deputy military commander at Preah Vihear, said a number of his soldiers had been sent back from the front line within the past two months to their base in the Preah Vihear’s Choam Ksan district.

“All of the soldiers will stay in their individual units until there is a new order for reinforcements,” Yoeun said.

Yesterday, a high-placed source at the Thai Suranaree Task Force, which oversees the Thai-Cambodia border, said there had been no official withdrawal of forces on either side.

He said some Cambodians were allowed to leave the barracks to farm as there were no security concerns.

Asked about the withdrawal, Cambodia’s Defence Minister Tea Banh said troop movements to and from the border were “nothing new”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen will leave today for a two-day trip to Bangkok where he will meet Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, leader of the military junta that took control of the country in May 2014.

Despite Hun Sen’s close ties to former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and the premier’s prickly history with the Thai military, analyst Paul Chambers said the leaders had made real improvements in relations.

“The changed Thai attitude appears to owe to a perception that Hun Sen has demonstrated a policy of distance from Thaksin Shinawatra,” Chambers, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, affiliated with Chiang Mai University, said via email.

“At the same time, as the Thai junta is trying to stabilise its borders in the aftermath of the August Erawan shrine bombing in Bangkok, improving ties with Hun Sen has been moved higher in the junta’s agenda.

“As it is Hun Sen’s second visit to Thailand over 15 years, it is clearly symbolic of rapprochement.”

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