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Border calm ahead of talks

Border calm ahead of talks

2-story-110.jpg
2-story-110.jpg

All is quiet on the northern front as Cambodian and Thai officials gear

up for bilateral talks this week, but RCAF officers are not hopeful of

a resolution

Photo by:
HENG CHIVOAN

A soldier holds a map of the Preah Vihear temple area, which is the focus of a long-standing territorial dispute.

FAIT ACCOMPLI

In 1962, the International Court of Justice issued a ruling granting Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia, but the Thai government has long opposed the ruling, which was made on the basis of maps drawn up during the period of French colonial rule.

TENSIONS have calmed along the Thai-Cambodian border ahead of bilateral talks to resolve the ongoing dispute over contested territory around Preah Vihear temple and elsewhere along the frontier, according to military officials stationed in the region.

Military sources say troops from both sides have pulled back from a pagoda near the 11th-century monument, following meetings between Thai and Cambodian military officials on the border last week.

Sao Socheat, deputy commander of Military Region 4, said both sides had agreed to withdraw their forces from the pagoda by Monday, following outbreaks of violence last month.

"[The Thais] started to withdraw their troops from the pagoda on Friday evening," he said.

"The Thai soldiers have no guns, grenades or knives. They have just worn civilian clothing since Saturday."

According to another RCAF officer posted at the border, who declined to be named, troops from both sides have gathered in two cantonment areas behind the front line, having withdrawn from the border positions where they have faced off since last month's clash.

"There are no more Thai paratroops at the front line near Preah Vihear temple. There remain only black uniformed Thai military," he said.

"We see that the situation is getting better. The number of soldiers at the front line is falling, and the soldiers at the pagoda are wearing civilian clothes."

Tensions between Cambodia and Thailand flared up in July, when Unesco granted Preah Vihear World Heritage status, triggering protests in Thailand and reigniting the long-simmering dispute over the temple site.

The cross-border brinkmanship erupted in a shootout last month, killing three Cambodian troops and one Thai, and damaging parts of the temple.

Cambodian Unesco representatives visited Preah Vihear this week, erecting signs urging soldiers to protect the temple from further damage. Cambodian officials accused Thai troops of intentionally damaging the ruins during last month's firefight, when a staircase and sculpture were partially destroyed.

In a ceremony at the temple Friday, officials raised the Unesco and World Heritage flags, designating the temple international cultural property under the protection of the world body.

But civilian and military officials expressed only mixed hopes that negotiations, set to reopen in Siem Reap today and ending Wednesday with talks between the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers, will resolve the standoff over the disputed land.

Not optimistic

Pov Heng, deputy commander of Military Region 4, said the experience of past talks did not make him optimistic that the Siem Reap summit would yield results. "We want negotiations to solve the problem but we aren't expecting this to happen, since the Thai military commanders always break their promises."

Sao Socheat said Cambodian troops were still stationed at the pagoda and remained on alert despite the apparent de-escalation of the Thai military. "We are still watching them closely even though they are in civilian uniforms because we are worried they will walk further inside Cambodian land and do something else.

"We will see Monday whether [the Thais] respect the agreement or not," he said.

However, Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that the withdrawal of Thai troops from the pagoda augured well for the success of the talks.

"Their withdrawal from the pagoda and of a number from the front line are good signs, and give an opportunity for an agreement," he said Sunday. "When we meet, we always have good results. The timing is good to solve remaining issues."  

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP

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