Cambodia officials have sent military reinforcements to the border area near Preah Vihear temple in the midst of a public spat with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva over the removal of Cambodian flags at a nearby pagoda.
On Friday, Abhisit requested that the flags be removed from Wat Keo Sekha Kirisvara, adjacent to the temple, a plea that came amid reports of a Thai plan to hold military exercises close to Preah Vihear.
Srey Doek, commander of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Military Division 3 at the border, said additional personnel, tanks and heavy artillery had been dispatched to the border on Friday in response to the exercises.
“They [Thai troops] are doing maneuvers and we are also doing them – that is why we need to send tanks and other weapons to the border,” Srey Doek said. “Our armed forces are on alert.”
Information minister Khieu Kanharith said today that the situation could erupt “this afternoon or tomorrow” if the Thais threatened Cambodia’s construction of a road leading up to Preah Vihear.
“Our stance is that [Thai troops] should not cross the border without Cambodian agreement,” he said.
Tensions in the area first broke out in 2008 following the inscription of Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage site for Cambodia.
The confrontation over the flags follows Thai demands that Cambodia remove a stone tablet placed last month at Wat Keo Sekha Kirisvara which read: “Here! is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008, and withdrew at 10:30am on December 1, 2010.”
On Tuesday last week, the sign was removed and replaced with another proclaiming, “Here! Is Cambodia”, a sign that was itself later destroyed at Thailand’s request.
Abhisit’s call for the removal of Cambodian flags from Wat Keo Sekha Kirisvara, however, has been rejected outright.
In a statement issued on Friday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected Abhisit’s request, saying the pagoda was on Cambodian territory.
The ministry claimed the demand was made “in parallel with Thailand’s military exercises at the border”, which were “clearly provocative and [constitute] a casus belli for future acts of aggression against Cambodia”.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation wishes to emphasise that this statement made by the prime minister of Thailand is unacceptable and that the Kingdom of Cambodia firmly rejects such an insulting demand,” the statement read.
“Cambodia reserves its legitimate rights to [defend] its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In his weekly television programme today, Abhisit reportedly pledged to work with Cambodia to have the flags near Preah Vihear removed.
“The temple is located on the disputed border area, and if the claim by the Yellow Shirt people is true, the government will coordinate with Cambodian authorities to remove the flag,” Abhisit said in Davos, Switzerland, according to The Bangkok Post.
Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia intensified last month following the arrest of Thai parliamentarian Panich Vikitsreth and six other Thai nationals for trespassing on Cambodian territory.
Panich and four of the other Thais were found guilty but released earlier this month on suspended sentences.
However, two others including Yellow Shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid are being held on espionage charges and are set to be tried on Tuesday.
They have also been charged with illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military base, facing up to 11 and a half years in prison.