Talks between Thailand and Cambodia Tuesday were building on an easing of tensions along their common border following a dispute over an ancient temple and possible rival claims over other ruins around the border area. Reduced tensions and talks followed an agreement last week to reduce troop numbers along the border region.
A Cambodian soldier on the disputed Thailand-Cambodian border
The talks between the foreign ministers of Thailand and Cambodia at a seaside resort in Thailand were the second at a ministerial level in efforts to cool border tensions in a dispute over territory surrounding an 11th-century Khmer temple.
A Thai foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that the situation was “moving in a positive manner”, as border tensions had cooled. The spokesman expected the situation would return to normal “as soon as possible”.
The talks were led by the Thai Foreign Minister, Tej Bunnag and his Cambodian counterpart, Hor Namhong.
Last week, the two sides reached an agreement for the withdrawal of some 1,000 troops from the two countries that had been sent to the border over the past month. Most of the troops had stood down by the start of the meeting on Tuesday.
Thorn in bilateral relations
The Preah Vihear temple lies just inside Cambodia but is easily accessible from the Thai side of the border. The temple has been a diplomatic thorn in bilateral relations between Thailand and Cambodia for over 40 years. A 1962 International Court of Justice ruling granted sovereignty over the temple site to Cambodia.
But the issue flared again earlier this year when Thailand’s former foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama agreed to allow Cambodia to unilaterally seek United Nations World Heritage status.
Thailand had long sought for a dual request that would include an area inside Thailand as part of the heritage application. Noppadon was later forced to resign over the issue.
Domestic issues at core of dispute
But Carl Thayer, a security analyst on Southeast Asia politics at the Australian National University, said domestic politics lay at the core of the dispute.
“The Preah Vihear temple fed into domestic politics in both countries with elections being held in Cambodia and the government in Thailand being challenged out on the streets by protestors. The current situation led to a foreign minister to resign -- a sweeping victory for [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen and his party in Cambodia -- so it had domestic dimensions where kicking a nationalist ball is part of the political game.”
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, says unanswered questions remain as to why Noppadon supported Cambodia’s claim to register the temple alone rather than jointly with Thailand.
“The fact that the government is not able to answer why the government -- specifically the foreign minister -- rushed to support the Cambodians in terms of registering the temple -- which is in a sovereign [area] of Cambodia and not asking the Cambodians to support to register the temple area in Thailand together is still very much in the minds of the Thai people.”
The issue of Cambodia’s registering the temple was the focus of a heated parliamentary debate as well as street protests in Thailand. The whole matter has also stirred anti-Thai sentiment in Cambodia.
Rise of nationalist sentiment
Sunai Pasuk, a representative in Thailand for the international rights group Human Rights Watch said a chief concern from the dispute was the drawing to the surface of extreme nationalism in both countries.
“Both sides in the dispute -- the Thai Government and the Cambodian government -- and all the political players there have exploited extreme nationalism for political gain [without] caring much about the possible consequences. It was a very disturbing development.”
Underlying historical animosity has led to the torching of several Thai owned buildings in the Cambodian capital -- including the Thai Embassy in 2003.
Concerns remain that tensions could again flare as other temples along the border are again expected to face rival claims by both countries.