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Border troops to stand down as Preah Vihear conflict cools

Written By vibykhmer on Monday, August 24, 2009 | 1:20 AM

Photo by: Tracey Shelton
A Cambodian soldier sits metres away from Thai counterparts (background) at Sambok Khmum, near the Preah Vihear temple complex in July.

A 13-MONTH military standoff that has claimed more than seven lives and left hundreds homeless at an ancient border temple is at last giving way to peace, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared.

In a sign of thawing relations with Thailand, he announced plans to reduce the number of troops stationed around the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple in a gesture of political good will. The disputed frontier has been the scene of violent clashes with Thai soldiers since 2008.

Hun Sen said Thailand had reduced the number of its soldiers stationed on the border to just 30, effectively ushering in a cease-fire. At the height of the fighting, Thai troops massed in their hundreds. Cambodia now intends to send a number of troops away from the area and back to their bases in nearby provinces, Hun Sen said, although he declined to give precise figures.
Photo by: AFP
Thai troops were out in force days after the standoff began at Preah Vihear temple on July 19, 2008.

Preah vihear: Timeline of Tensions
  • 11th century: Construction begins on the Preah Vihear temple complex.
  • 1904, 1907: Franco-Siamese treaties create an ambiguous border area, leaving the ownership of Preah Vihear in doubt.
  • 1954: Thai troops occupy Preah Vihear.
  • June 15, 1962: The International Court of Justice rules, by a 9-3 vote, that the Preah Vihear temple complex belongs to Cambodia and not to Thailand, though the surrounding territory remains in doubt.
  • July 7, 2009: UNESCO lists the Preah Vihear temple complex as a World Heritage site.
  • July 17, 2008: Around 400 Thai troops and 800 Cambodian troops are massed at the border near the temple.
  • October 2008: A series of skirmishes at the border leaves two Cambodian soldiers dead and several others from both sides wounded.
  • April 2009: Three Thai soldiers are killed in renewed hostilities.
  • June 24, 2009: UNESCO ignores a complaint filed by Thailand in protest of Preah Vihear's World Heritage status.
  • August 22, 2009: Prime Minister Hun Sen announces a partial withdrawal of troops stationed around the temple.

"Having too many troops up there is not really good," said Hun Sen during a trip to an outlying province on Saturday. "We have a plan to change the deployment a little. If anything happened, it wouldn't take long to send our troops up again, but I hope there won't be any fighting there."

Cambodia and Thailand have been at loggerheads over the land around the Preah Vihear temple for decades.

Although the World Court ruled in 1962 that it belonged to Cambodia, the most accessible entrance to the ancient Khmer temple, with its crumbling stone staircases and elegant carvings, is in northeastern Thailand. The ruins were granted UN World Heritage status in July 2008, throwing Cambodian-Thai relations into a downward spiral.

Srey Doek, commander of Military Division 3 stationed at Preah Vihear temple, described the move as "a good signal of peace". He confirmed Sunday that several Cambodian units were poised to return home as relations between the nations stabilised, but stressed the withdrawal would not jeopardise efforts to safeguard the site.

"We are working to reduce some of our armed forces at Preah Vihear temple in line with the prime minister's orders," he told the Post. "Some are turning back today to their bases in other provinces. The reduction won't affect our ability to defend the temple because the situation there is returning to normal. If the situation changes and we need them to come back, it will only take them 20 minutes to get here."

Senior military officials from both sides are scheduled to meet this week to discuss further cooperation. Songkitti Jaggabatra, supreme commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, will visit Royal Cambodian Armed Force's Commander in Chief Pol Saroeun and other senior officials, according to Nem Sowath, Cabinet chief for the Ministry of Defence.

In a further gesture of solidarity, Thai and Cambodian soldiers are due to take part in a joint religious festival at Ta Thav tomorrow. Ten Navun, an RCAF first lieutenant stationed at the border, said: "Our ceremony's purpose is to develop understanding and ease tensions."

The border has never been fully demarcated, in part because it is littered with land mines left over from decades of war in Cambodia.

Civil society and opposition groups could not be reached for comment on Sunday.


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