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Sitting on a powder keg

Border crisis rhetoric heats up as diplomatic efforts drag on


A soldier waits to be sent into action as negotiations continue over the ongoing border dispute at Preah Vihear.

The military standoff at Preah Vihear continues to escalate, Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said, calling the presence of Thai troops on Cambodian territory an “invasion” but adding later that crisis talks with Thailand on the issue would resume next week.

He also said that the government would ask the UN Security Council to postpone any action on Cambodia’s request that it weigh in on the crisis.

“The two sides have decided to hold the complaint to the UN. They have also agreed to have a meeting between Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers,” he told the Post on July 24.

“We show the political will to solve the problem bilaterally,” he said, adding that Thai and Cambodian officials would meet on July 28 in Siem Reap.

 “We will not allow the Thais to continue staying on Cambodian soil. We will not tolerate this because Thailand has invaded our land,” he said earlier in the day. “But we have to try legal action first.... There is no ultimatum.”

Thousands of troops from both sides have been deployed to the border in the largest military build-up in years, sparking fears among regional leaders that the standoff could erupt into open warfare.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Singapore, called for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

Satellite photo of Preah Vihear. IKONOS IMAGE (C) CRISP, NUS/GEOEYE 2004, provided by Aruna Technology Ltd, Cambodia.

“We are concerned about it and there needs to be a way to resolve it peacefully,” she told reporters. “We’ll continue to consult with the regional states.”

Thailand has rejected a Cambodian request for outside mediation, and ASEAN leaders said earlier in the week that negotiations had failed to ease tensions.

The crisis began on July 15 when dozens of Thai troops crossed the border and took up positions near the temple following Cambodia’s successful bid to have Preah Vihear listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site a week earlier.

At the heart of the row is 4.8 square kilometers around the temple that remains in dispute after the World Court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia.

Bangkok maintains that its troops are occupying Thai territory located a short distance from the 11th-century temple – a claim that has repeatedly been rejected by Cambodia.

“This is an invasion to take Cambodian land,” Khieu Kanharith said. “We have a lot of weapons, but we do not want to violate ASEAN treaties and we hope that this will not reach the point of conflict.”

Senior military leaders, including Defense Minister Tea Banh and deputy chief-of-staff Kun Kim, visited the site on July 24 as the situation appeared ready to drag on.

“I want to tell all of the armed forces to be patient and not to engage in any violence,” Tea Banh said following a meeting with commanders at Preah Vihear, adding however, “that very little tension has been relieved.”

Cambodia has about 1,700 soldier and police deployed to the temple, while “many thousands” more remain on high alert along the border, said Srey Doek, commander of army Brigade 12.

Cambodian officials, including Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, have accused Thailand of massing troops and equipment along their side of the border.

Along the de facto frontline near the temple this week, troops from both sides continued reinforcing their positions, stringing lines of razor wire and digging trenches within meters of each other.

But amid the preparations for war, a campground atmosphere sometimes prevailed, with soldiers trading jokes across the line, with Cambodian troops telling the Thais that they were not digging their trenches deep enough.

The crisis comes at a crucial time for both countries, with Thailand’s government under fire from the opposition and Cambodia heading into general elections on July 27 that are expected to see the Cambodian People’s Party win total control of government after more than a decade of power-sharing arrangements.

Cambodian opposition parties have accused the CPP of trying to exploit the Preah Vihear standoff for political gain, a charge denied by ruling party officials who say they are merely trying to defuse the situation.

As Cambodia’s leaders seek international efforts to find a diplomatic solution, fear of fighting has spread along the country’s border, with hundreds of families fleeing Anlong Veng.

“I heard rumors say there will be a bloody fighting soon because the negotiations had failed. I decided to leave for home and keep my stuff there until there is calm after the election,” said Um Thavy, a clothing seller at Anlong Veng who left for his home province of Kampong Thom on July 22 along with an estimated 300 other families.

Residents of villages closer to Preah Vihear have also left their homes, or were in the process of building fortifications against possible shell and mortar fire, they said. (Additional reporting by AFP and Chrann Chamroeun)



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