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Thais call for talks on troop pull-out

Buddhist monks file past a soldier on their way to a prayer ceremony at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple in August, 2008.

Despite an order from the United Nations’ highest court, it appeared yesterday that an “immediate” withdrawal of all military forces around Preah Vihear temple could be slow in coming.

Both sides have pledged to comply with Monday’s ruling from the International Court of Justice establishing a demilitar-ised zone around the temple, but Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva reportedly said yester-day that bilateral talks must come before a pull-out.

“Overall, it’s clear that if there are going to be troop withdrawals on both sides, there must be talks,” Agence France-Presse quoted the outgoing premier as saying. “It’s possible that the talks could take place immediately, but at this stage there is no talk of a pull-out.”

Abhisit reportedly added that the new Thai government – which was elected earlier this month, but is not expected to take power for several weeks – would have to carry out any troop withdrawal.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said yesterday that it was not possible to withdraw troops immediately.

“Can you remove troops in one day without any proced-ures?” he said. “A few hours after the ruling, we have begun our process, and the process is not simple.”

Panitan said Abhisit had asked Thailand’s ministries of defence and foreign affairs to “contact their Cambodian counterparts to make sure that they’re working together with Cambodia” to implement the court’s order.

No order has been given for the removal of troops on the Cambodian side, either, according to Srey Doek, commander of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Division 3, who is stationed near the temple.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said yesterday the two countries could begin implementing the ruling without further talks.

He added, however, that Cambodia would not withdraw its troops until Indones-ian observers arrived to monitor a cease-fire in the area.

“The court decision points out clearly to use the existing mechanism provided by Indonesia as the chair of ASEAN,” Phay Siphan said.

In its Monday decision, the ICJ ordered both sides to allow Indonesian observers to monitor a cease-fire and continue co-operation through ASEAN to resolve the dispute. It also said Thailand “shall not obstruct” Cambodia’s non-military access to the temple.

Phay Siphan said the order that both sides “immediately” withdraw troops from the demilitarised zone must be understood as one part of the court’s ruling, which also includes the order for both sides to co-operate with ASEAN and allow Indonesian observers.

“Both countries have to cooperate with Indonesia, or the ASEAN mechanism,” he said.

Chhum Socheat, spokesman for the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence, said yesterday that there was “no schedule” for the bilateral talks suggested by Abhisit.

Cambodia asked the ICJ in April to interpret how its 1962 verdict, which recognised Cambodian sovereignty over the 11th-century temple, affected ownership of the surrounding territory.

It also asked the court to order “provisional measures” to safeguard the temple and prevent further violence ahead of the re-interpretation of the 1962 ruling, which could take years.

Both sides sought to portray the ICJ’s ruling on the provis-ional measures, which the court has said will not affect its interpretation of the 1962 decision, as a “victory”.

The Cambodian government praised the “brilliant success” of its legal team, headed by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, while Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said he was “satisfied” with the decision.

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party, however, called the ruling a “shameful defeat for the Hun Sen government”.

“Following three years of aggression by Thailand and resulting violation of Cambodia’s territory, today’s inconsistent and shocking decision by the ICJ unacceptably put the agg-ressor and the victim on the same footing,” the SRP said in a statement yesterday.

“We renew our call for the Hun Sen government to step down because of its inability to effectively defend Cambodia’s territorial integrity and vital interests in the face of foreign aggression.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said in an email that it was “hard to say” whether either side had prevailed in the decision.

“Cambodia may find it hard to accept, since occupying the temple and the disputed areas is, of course, to the benefit of the government,” he said.

“As for Thailand, the ruling indicated that Thailand [must] not obstruct Cambodia from bring[ing] food and drinks up to the Preah Vihear,” which Pavin said portrayed Thailand as a “bully”.

“I think the victory is for the ICJ as much as Indonesia. This will give more space for Jakarta to play its [role] as a mediator more easily,” Pavin added.

“What will Thailand and Cambodia gain from disobeying? At the end of the day, I believe both sides want to mend their ties and declaring another round of war would be disadvantageous for them.”



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