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Escalation

Escalation

Heng Chivoan

A soldier rests near Preah Vihear temple earlier this month.

Foreign military officials traveled over the weekend to Preah Vihear, where more than 1,500 heavily armed Thai and Cambodian troops remain locked in a standoff over disputed territory near the 11th-century temple.

Chinese and Vietnamese military officers could be seen at the site, along with other officials identified by Cambodian military as French and US diplomatic personnel.

It was unclear if they had any role in mediating the dispute, which began Tuesday when Cambodia says Thai soldiers crossed the border and took up positions in Cambodian territory following the arrest of three Thais who jumped an international checkpoint to try and protest Preah Vihear's ownership.

The temple has been closed to Thais since last month, when a group of angry demonstrators massed on the Thai side of the international border crossing to rally against Cambodia's claim to the temple.

Bangkok maintains that its soldiers are on Thai territory, a short distance from the temple.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Samak Sundaravej, have each written letters to other claiming the territory and urging the removal of troops ahead of crisis talks to be held in Thailand on Monday. Hun Sen on Thursday said the worsening situation was "very bad for relations" between the two countries. 

"These [Thai] soldiers have encroached on our territory ... and have since increased in number rather than withdrawing," Hun Sen wrote, according to government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.

An area of 4.8 square kilometers around the temple remains in dispute after the World Court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia. The temple was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 7 after years of resistance from Bangkok to the inscription, further inflaming Thai nationalism.

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.

As more troops from both sides were deployed to the area, residents near the temple fled, saying they feared that clashes would break out.

"People are leaving the area because they are scared," said Keo Vannak, a resident of Sa Em town near the base of the mountain on which the ruins sit.

But the situation Saturday appeared stable, despite the near eruption of violence late Thursday when soldiers from both sides pointed their weapons at each other after Cambodian troops entered a Buddhist pagoda near Preah Vihear to protect the food supplies of monks staying there.

Cambodian officials have called for calm this week as tensions along the border escalated with the Thais's refusal to withdraw, but military officers on the ground say that more troops could be deployed to counter Thai reinforcements.

“We sent more soldiers to the temple ... to stop the Thai troops from moving even further into the temple complex," said Kem Oun, deputy commander of RCAF Brigade 43, which was brought in as the crisis grew.

"Now, they are on our land, in our pagoda and violating our sovereignty, even after the threats of Cambodian soldiers," he told the Post on Thursday. "But our orders are to be patient and avoid fighting unless they start it first," he said.

A senior Cambodian military official who did not want to be named told the Post Saturday that Thailand was also massing troops and equipment across the border from Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia.

"The Thais want to pressure the Cambodian military by sending more Thai armed forces to Anlong Veng," said the official, who works closely with border issues.

Another military official said "many thousands" of Cambodian troops were on standby near Preah Vihear.

"We know the Thai strategy, so we have to be ready to defend ourselves," he said.

Although generally good in recent years, Thai-Cambodian relations nose-dived in 2003 when a Thai pop star allegedly said Angkor Wat, one of the most important symbols for Cambodians, actually belonged to Thailand.

In response, an mob looted and burned the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh and ransacked several other Thai-owned businesses. Fearing similar violence, a Thai company working on the road from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng has halted construction and withdrawn its personnel. 

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