Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia over disputed territory that includes a 900-year-old Khmer temple site were fanned by accusations by the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of Thai troops infringing Cambodian territory. Thailand’s foreign ministry, while seeking to calm tensions, warned it would defend its territory if Cambodian troops acted aggressively.
Observers think Cambodia is making the most of the political unrest in Thailand to settle the border dispute "once and for all"
The fresh tensions came despite a meeting of the foreign ministers of both countries, which was aimed at easing tensions over the disputed border zone that first flared up in August and has led to hundreds of troops being deployed to the area.
The contested Preah Vihear temple lies inside Cambodian territory, but the main access to the site is on the Thai side of the border.
Sunai Pasuk, the Thai representative for the US-based Human Rights Watch, said that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen seemed to be taking advantage of Thailand’s troubled political climate to settle the border dispute “once and for all”.
“The climate during the meeting [of foreign ministers] was described as friendly and understanding. When the delegation arrived back in Bangkok it was surprised to learn that Hun Sen had reworked the position and had demanded that Thai troops be withdrawn and that otherwise there might be an armed conflict between the two countries,” Sunai said.
Thailand sees ultimatum as act of aggression
Hun Sen had set a deadline of noon local time on Tuesday for the Thai troops to be removed. The deadline was later extended for a further three hours. A senior Cambodian army official later claimed that Thai troops had “retreated” from the contested area.
But Thailand denied this claim. “The position of Thailand remains unchanged,” Sunai explained. “Thailand hasn’t entered Cambodian territory. And there’s no reason for Thailand to follow the demand of Hun Sen, which is now interpreted as an act of aggression. The tension between the two sides is very real and very serious.”
Thailand’s foreign ministry, in a statement, said the remarks by Hun Sen to issue an ultimatum to Thailand to move its troops from the area adjacent to the temple and threatening to use force “had come as a surprise”.
The statement also said that while Thailand sought a peaceful outcome, it warned that if Cambodia resorted to force it would have to exercise its right of self-defence to protect de-mining personnel and Thai sovereignty.
Proposal of joint committee to oversee troop withdrawal
Panitan Wattanaygorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, explained that the Thai army thought it was acting within Thailand’s borders: “It is quite clear that they’re not going to move back from the claimed territory. If the Cambodians want them to move out from these areas they may have to use force because it is clear that this area, according to the Thai military, is theirs and has to be protected.”
The fresh developments in the border dispute triggered urgent meetings between senior Thai military officials and Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who is also defence minister. Somchai has proposed a joint committee to oversee the withdrawal of troops.
Thailand and Cambodia have long disputed the ownership of the temple and the border. In 1962, the International Court of Justice granted sovereignty over the temple to Cambodia.
Earlier this year, Cambodia successfully had the temple recognised as a United Nations World heritage site. Thailand had long sought a joint application by the two countries.