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Peace at Preah Vihear: army


Army brass from both nations say temple hostilities are over for good.

SENIOR military leaders from the Thai and Cambodian armed forces declared an official end to hostilities on the border at Preah Vihear on Monday, stating the shared goal of "peace and solidarity".

In a pivotal meeting between the neighbouring countries, staged at the headquarters of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, commanders from both sides said they drew a definitive line under the territorial dispute that has been simmering for decades.

Addressing an assembled crowd of military dignitaries, representatives of the once-feuding forces - seven of whom have been killed in skirmishes since the conflict entered its most recent phase in July 2008 - heralded a new spirit of cooperation.

General Songkitti Jaggabatra, supreme commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, said the historic border dispute at the site of the 11th-century temple would no longer be allowed to jeopardise diplomatic relations between the two nations.

"I would like to clarify again that there will be no more problems between Thailand and Cambodia," he said. "The border will not be the cause of any further disputes."

In response, RCAF Commander Pol Sareoun insisted that Thailand and Cambodia shared a vision for the future.

"We have the same view," he said. "Our goal is to achieve peace and solidarity with each other as siblings."

The meeting was held after Prime Minister Hun Sen's announcement on Saturday that he plans to slash the number of Cambodian troops stationed at the border. The move was a response to Thailand's decision to reduce the number of its soldiers in the area to just 30.

Speaking during a visit to Pursat province on Saturday, the prime minister said: "Having too many troops up there is not really good. We have a plan to change the deployment a little. If anything happened, it wouldn't take long to send our troops up again, but I hope there won't be any fighting there."

The opposition, however, was less optimistic. Speaking to the Post on Monday, Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay insisted the meeting signified nothing new.

"I don't believe the border dispute can be solved through such a meeting," he said.

Son Chhay said such disputes were best resolved via the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and international law. Solving border conflicts of this scale and intensity, he said, should be left to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

"As we already know, we cannot defend our territory by simply negotiating with Thailand," he said.

"Thailand depends on their military power and resources, and they're just delaying this issue as long as possible so that they can eventually demand more of our territory.

"We're waiting for the government to use diplomatic institutions, the legal system and international agreements, such as the 1991 Paris Peace accords, which promised to guarantee our territory." Continuing negotiations with Thailand could, he said, use up valuable financial resources and further jeopardise the stability of Cambodia's faltering economy.

Photo by: Heng Chivoan
RCAF Commander Pol Saroeun and Royal Thai Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Songkitti Jaggabatra leave RCAF headquarters on Monday after agreeing to a peaceful resolution to the 13-month military standoff a the Preah Vihear temple complex.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, echoed Son Chhay's reservations. "We don't have any faith in Thailand's promise," he told the Post. "We have not seen any positive solutions yet."

Rong Chhun, whose organisation had earlier demanded that Thai troops withdraw from the area, said Bangkok was trying to buy time.

He said that despite previous promises made by Thailand to withdraw its troops, many of its soldiers remained stationed on Cambodian soil.

"We have had a lot of meetings, but we have no results," he said. "Our leaders should make the right decision: Don't believe Thailand's promises."
The temple and the territory around it have long been a source of tension between the two countries.

French colonial surveyors in 1907 drew a map showing Preah Vihear perched along the Dangrek mountain range inside Cambodia. Thailand does not regard that map as valid, arguing that an earlier agreement showed the temple alongside a Thai mountain.

Thai troops occupied Preah Vihear in the 1950s, but were forced to leave in 1962 after the World Court accepted Cambodia's ownership claim. Mass demonstrations in Thailand followed the ruling.

Cambodia began the process to have the temple granted heritage status years ago and on July 8, 2008, it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The move again enraged Thai nationalists, who marched on the temple complex and also blamed their government for handing Thai territory over to Cambodia, adding to the political turmoil already engulfing Bangkok.

Shortly after its inscription as a World Heritage site, Thai troops were accused of invading Cambodian land near the temple, sparking the largest buildup of troops and military equipment along the border in years.

In April 2009, more than 319 families were left homeless when a market at the foot of the Preah Vihear temple was destroyed during fighting that razed 264 stalls. The government demanded US$2.1 million in compensation from Thailand, but has yet to receive an official response.

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