Cross-border tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have escalated with a build-up of troops on both sides in a stand-off over disputed territory surrounding an ancient Khmer temple. The dispute over the region around the temple, which has been listed for United Nations World Heritage status, has become tangled with the ongoing row between Thais supporting and opposing the present government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.
The 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple is on disputed territory
Cross-border tensions between Thailand rose on Friday in an increasingly nationalist battle over a 900-year-old Khmer temple located just inside the Cambodian border. Cambodian military sources estimate that Thailand has increased troop numbers to 400 near the famed Preah Vihear temple. Meanwhile, Cambodia has stationed 800 troops in the disputed region.
The tensions were exacerbated on Thursday when opposition groups to Thai Prime Miinister Samak Sundaravej’s government attempted to travel to the temple site and ended up clashing with local villages.
The story is leading on Thai television: “Anti-government protestors were confronted by a group of local villagers near the Preah Vihear temple in the latest development in the controversial issue. Meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Thailand to withdraw the troops he claimed had entered Cambodia territory.”
The protestors, led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), have been staging anti-government demonstrations since late May. They accuse Mr. Samak’s administration of acting as a proxy for the former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who now faces corruption charges.
The dispute over the temple has already claimed the post of Thailand’s Foreign Minister, Noppadon Pattama -- Mr. Thaksin’s former lawyer. Mr Noppadon was recently forced to resign after the Constitution Court found he had violated the Thai constitution by signing a communiqué with Cambodia without parliamentary approval.
The agreement enabled Cambodia to seek United Nations World Heritage status for the temple. A 1962 International Court of Justice ruling granted the sovereignty over the temple site to Cambodia. But the land adjacent to the temple is under Thai control.
Need for transparency
Thailand had earlier refused Cambodia to lodge an individual application for heritage status of the site. Thailand’s parliamentary opposition, the Democrat Party, accused Mr. Noppadam of acting in haste.
“What we must insist upon is that we want to have good relations with our neighbours and the only way that people-to-people relations will be cordial is when the two governments do everything in a transparent manner,” said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. “That is the key. I don’t think the temple issue would be a source of confrontation if it had been dealt with in a transparent manner.”
On Friday, a leader from the Bangkok-based People’s Alliance for Democracy accused government officials of failing to prevent a clash with local residents as the PAD sought to gain access to the temple area.
Could make or break government
“This issue is becoming one of the central core issues in terms of making or breaking the government’s legitimacy,” explained Panitan Wattanaygorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
“It’s now pushed the government to accept the responsibility in terms of withdrawing support for Cambodia to register the temple. So the government needs to handle this very, very carefully.”
Cambodia has said it had agreed to hold talks on Monday in an effort to cool cross border tensions. Both Cambodia’s Information Minister and the Thai Army Commander have said their troops will not use force.