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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Temple tensions

Temple tensions

Heng Chivoan

A Cambodian soldier stands in front of Preah Vihear temple earlier in July.

A t least 30 Thai troops who illegally entered Cambodia near Preah Vihear temple Tuesday are being held by Cambodian military, officials said, in the latest flare-up over the disputed 11th-century Hindu monument.

The armed Thai rangers had crossed into Cambodia following the arrest earlier in the day of three Thai protesters who jumped a border checkpoint and made their way to the temple, which has been closed off to Thais since June, when an angry crowd massed on Thailand's side of the line to claim ownership of Preah Vihear.

The three protesters were released, but the soldiers will be held until the issue of their incursion is resolved, said Meas Saroeun, a military officer at Preah Vihear, adding that one of the Thai soldiers was airlifted back to Thailand after losing his leg to a landmine in Cambodian territory.

"The mine had been underground since the war" in the 1980s, he told the Post. Some 60 Thai soldiers remained fanned out on the Thai side of the border, he said.

Hun Saravuth, deputy military police commander for Preah Vihear province, said earlier in the day that the Thai soldiers had spread out in a forested area within the temple complex after occupying a Buddhist pagoda located on a mountainside underneath the temple.

"We do not know why they are here," he said.

Reinforcements from the Choam Kh'san district and border police have been rushed to the temple complex, said district governor Kao Long, but Cambodian officials have vowed to remain calm.

"The Cambodian side is cool and patient," said Hang Soth, director of the National Preah Vihear Authority.

"The top levels of government are trying to resolve the situation. We do not want to fight," he added.

Preah Vihear temple was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 7 despite a lingering dispute over ownership of the land surrounding the temple.

The designation sparked jubilant celebrations across Phnom Penh, culminating in an enormous fireworks display at Olympic Stadium Monday night that drew thousands of people.

But in Thailand, bruised nationalism remains unappeased, and the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is suffering from the fallout.

On July 10, Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama stepped down after the Constitutional Court ruled that he had acted illegally in signing an agreement supporting Cambodia’s bid to have Preah Vihear temple listed as a World Heritage Site without the permission of parliament.

His move had been approved by Samak’s cabinet, which the court also decided had violated the Thai Constitution in acting without parliamentary consent, a verdict that observers said could lead to a major cabinet reshuffle.

Thai nationalists have vowed to continue protesting over the temple, with some groups saying they would storm Preah Vihear.

"If Thai protesters continue to enter Cambodian territory, we will arrest them and send them back," said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.

"We would like Cambodia and Thailand to solve this diplomatically through their embassies," he told the Post on Tuesday.

But one villager at the temple said she was increasingly worried the dispute would turn ugly, especially after the landmine blast.

"We are concerned that the Thais came here to create trouble," she said.

While generally good in recent years, Cambodia's relations with Thailand nosedived in 2003 over another temple, the famed Angkor Wat, after false rumors spread that a Thai starlet had said the most important symbol of the Khmer empire's ancient power actually belonged to Thailand.

An enraged mob burned and looted the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh before destroying a number of Thai-owned businesses around the capital. 

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