Monday, July 21, 2008

Thailand Cambodia border stand-off

High level talks between Thai and Cambodian officials have failed to come to terms on the week-long military stand-off over the disputed Preah Vihear temple on their shared border. While both sides expressed the desire to ease tensions, neither have given ground in talks in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, 380 km from the 11th century temple at the centre of the dispute. So far there have been no casualties and both sides talked up the peace. Thai Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niumpradit saying Thailand had a “reasonable offer” while Cambodian commander Chea Mon said he didn’t want armed troops disturbing Buddhist monks praying at the temple.

Both countries are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). An ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Singapore originally scheduled to discuss the aftermath of Burma’s cyclone Nargiss was sidetracked by the border spat between Thailand and Cambodia. The two countries agreed to "exert utmost efforts" to find a peaceful solution to their border standoff. Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo says both sides were urged to resolve their differences amicably in the spirit of ASEAN solidarity and good neighbourliness. "Both sides affirmed that they would abide by their ASEAN and international obligations and exert their utmost efforts to find a peaceful solution to the issue," said Yeo in a statement.

However Yeo’s statement appeared optimistic given what was happening on the ground. More than 500 Thai troops face off against well over 1,000 Cambodian soldiers stationed around a small Buddhist pagoda leading to the ruins of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, where nearby land is claimed by both sides. Although traditional Thai land, it was ceded to French Indochina in a 1906 treaty with Thailand. While Japan promised the land back to Thailand during World War Two, Thailand agreed to return it to Cambodia after the war in order to secure UN membership. Cambodian ownership has since been confirmed by an International Court of Justice ruling.

However Matters came to a head when UNESCO listed Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site this month. UNESCO said the site was exceptional for three reasons: firstly its natural situation on a promontory, with sheer cliffs overlooking a vast plain and mountain range; secondly the quality of its architecture adapted to the natural environment and religious function of the temple; and thirdly, the exceptional quality of the carved stone ornamentation of the temple. It cited the fact that both the governments of Cambodia and Thailand were “in full agreement that the Sacred Site of the Temple of Preah Vihear has Outstanding Universal Value.”

However the decision triggered political uproar in Bangkok, where the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) accused the government of selling out Thailand's history by backing the listing. PAD have fastened on to the nationalist strains of this “sell out” to oust Thai PM Samak Sundaravej. The anti-Thaksin Shinawatra party have been conducting street demonstrations against the government since June. Their protests gained new impetus with the UNESCO decision and they claim Sudaravej had gained business concessions in Cambodia in payment for ceding Thai territory.

The Thais call Preah Vihear “Khao Phra Viharn”. The temple was the subject of a prolonged legal tussle between the Thai and Cambodian governments, both of which claimed ownership after centuries of rivalry, invasions and fluctuating borders. In 1961-62, the International Court of Justice got involved and declared that the site belonged to Cambodia. In 1963, Thai Prime Minister Sarit told his country in a televised address that Thailand would comply with the Court ruling and withdraw from Khao Phra Viharn. The site has been under Cambodian administration since then.

But for tourists the site is still easiest reached from Thailand. Telegraph journalist Alex Spillius visited the site in 1998 by Cambodian army helicopter but says he was lucky to survive the experience. For those not inclined to hitch a lift from the military, the journey to Preah Vihear from Cambodia involves a two-day journey from Siem Reap , the town that serves Angkor Wat, “on small roads that, although improved, would still not do your spine any favours.” From Thailand, a visit can be built in to a tour of the north-east, (known as “Isaan”) starting at Nakhon Ratchasima or Ubon Ratchathani airports, both short flights from Bangkok. It is a short walk across a border where passports were not required. However no tourists are welcome to Preah Vihear for the time being.

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