Preah Vihear or Phra Viharn? After a two-day meeting of the Joint Border Committee of Cambodia and Thailand (JBC) on April 6th and 7th, Cambodians and Thais did not manage to reach an agreement over that question, which, according to diplomats from both Kingdoms, is but the last stumbling block between Cambodia and Thailand with a view to solve peacefully a conflict which was revived due to an exchange of gunfire along the border they share.At the end of the second day of talks which finished at 7pm at the newly-inaugurated Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh, Var Kim Hong, the co-chairman of the Cambodian side of the Committee and his Thai counterpart Vasin Teeravechyan presented the result of the last three rounds of talks meant to put an end to the border dispute which started dividing both countries in July 2008 and went through a violent twist on Friday April 3rd as Thai and Cambodian soldiers faced each other near the Khmer temple of Preah Vihear.
Above all, these two days of negotiations allowed the validation of documents prepared during the first meeting: thus, the agreement reached in November 2008 at the special meeting in Siem Reap and the agreement obtained in Bangkok in February 2009 were revised and signed together with texts about the process of border delimitation, defined at the beginning of this week.
“This will allow us to start working”, particularly on the installation of border markers, Var Kim Hong declared at the end of the second day of the meeting. While Vasin Teeravechyan has not agreed to put forward any dates for the launching of those operations as he preferred talking about a “step by step” process, the Cambodian co-chairman declared for his part that a first group in charge of delimitations would be operational as from the month of May onwards and would be planting “posts at the gate of Chorm Sragnam (Oddar Meanchey), i.e. post number 1, all the way to the Ta Moane temple, i.e. post number 23”. In Zone number 6, where the Preah Vihear temple is located, “technical aspects still have to be solved”, the Cambodian co-chairman estimated. According to him, works for measurements and demining will start next July “at the latest”.
The content of these agreements, however, was not made public and one question is still unanswered and might continue to block progress in the delimitation works: that of the name of the temple, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since July 7th and which both parties are fighting over: Preah Vihear for Cambodians or Phra Viharn for Thais. “We suggested that the official name of Preah Vihear appear in bilateral documents, with a mention between brackets ‘Phra Viharn in Thai’. But the proposition has not yet been accepted by Thailand”, Var Kim Hong explained. He pointed out the fact that once an agreement is reached on that matter, all obstacles to a peaceful settlement will be gone.
For the Thai side, the fact that the Khmer name of Preah Vihear was the one chosen by UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee, which listed the temple, is not a good enough reason for Thailand to say no to the name of Phra Viharn. “This is just about the UNESCO and not about the Border Committee”, Vasin Teeravechyan declared briefly.
Questioned about the recent deployment of military forces along the border with Cambodia, the Thai co-chairman said he was “not aware” of it. On the Cambodian side, once again, there seemed to be more will to talk about the topic. Preap Tann, the governor for the Preah Vihear province and member of the Joint Border Committee of Cambodia and Thailand asserted that Thai military forces were currently deployed “about a kilometre away from the border”, thus confirming the deployment of additional military Thai troops and particularly, “of rocket launchers in front of the Preah Vihear temple”.
For Preah Vihear governor Preap Tann, there is nothing abnormal concerning the deployment of armed forces on both sides, even though negotiations are ongoing: “We have a two-sided situation here: on the one hand, Cambodia uses diplomacy, and on the other hand, we have to protect our territory”.
Cambodian spokesperson Phay Siphan also announced that a report was sent to the UNESCO to inform the organisation of the damage caused by Thai gunfire on the temple on April 3rd. “We are members of the UNESCO and our duty is to protect and preserve world heritage”, he said, hoping that a meeting would soon be called up by the UN organisation to mention those problems.
UNESCO director-general Koïchiro Matsuura has for that matter expressed his “deep concern” upon hearing about the revival of tensions between Thai and Cambodian soldiers near the Preah Vihear temple, “a masterpiece in Khmer architecture”, and “the exceptional and universal worth of which [...] transcends national borders”.
On Tuesday April 7th, Moeung Sonn, the president of the Khmer Civilisation Foundation (KCF) requested that Thailand pay compensation to the Cambodian victims of the April 3rd military coup which caused important damage on the Cambodian market of Prasat where about a hundred sheds went up in smoke. For Phay Siphan, the government “could think about” the request but he added that it would depend on the UNESCO to mention that point, since it concerns a protected area.
The date for the next meeting between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Thailand and Cambodia, which will mark the next step in the negotiation process, has not been set yet.