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PAD puts pressure on govt over 'loss' of disputed land

Written By vibykhmer on Wednesday, September 16, 2009 | 9:42 PM

A Cambodian settlement in the disputed territory near the Preah Vihear temple ruins.

17/09/2009

Wassana Nanuam
Bangkok Post


Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya's weekend visit to the area around Preah Vihear, a sore point in Thai-Cambodian relations, has left many wondering what the latest fuss is about.

Usually, a military standoff sends border security temperatures soaring. But this time, it's talk of the possibility of the country losing a 4.6 square-kilometre overlapping area near Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia that has roused national fervour.

While the Abhisit government was busy fending off the myriad political threats to its survival, the unresolved territorial dispute over the historical ruins has continued to put the two countries' diplomatic ties on edge.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has even turned on one of its own men, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, for what it views as his being complacent. Such an attitude is in total contrast to the early days in office when Mr Kasit demonstrated how fired-up he was in guarding the country's territory.

Another person who has kept a watch on the Preah Vihear development is president of the Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda. Gen Prem is reportedly concerned about the possibility of tensions spinning out of control if it is not attended to properly.

A source said former supreme commander Gen Mongkol Ampornpisit, one of Gen Prem's closest aides, paid a visit to Chuan Leekpai, the former prime minister and chief adviser of the ruling Democrat Party, at the party's headquarters in August, to convey Gen Prem's concern over the border developments.

Gen Prem's worry could have been the nudge that spurred Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva into instructing Mr Kasit to organise a TV broadcast assuring the Thai public that the country has not yet lost a single inch of land area in regard to the Preah Vihear dispute.

Last week, Mr Abhisit and Mr Kasit asked Second Army commander Lt Gen Wibulsak Neepal to update them on the latest situation.

The meeting reportedly included a discussion on plans to reduce the size of Thai troops stationed at the 4.6 sqkm no man's land buffering the border. The troop reduction proposal would require parliamentary approval before it is put on the table for another round of discussions with Phnom Penh.

Mr Kasit subsequently led a trip to Preah Vihear, the first in many years by a foreign minister. The visit was widely covered by the media. Mr Kasit set off on foot to Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri temple where he met Cambodia's deputy supreme commander Gen Chea Dara, reputed to be Prime Minister Hun Sen's right-hand man. It is believed that the way to gain favourable terms with Mr Hun Sen is through this general. Securing that vital connection with the Cambodian leadership is in order, as the government seems more desperate now than ever to rebut the PAD's insistence that Thailand has tacitly ceded its sovereignty over the no man's land to Cambodia.

The PAD has argued that Cambodian soldiers have occupied much of the disputed land. Although Thai troops are also stationed in the area, it is the Cambodian team which is perceived as having a command-and-control advantage.

The PAD took matters into its own hands when, on Aug 28, core leader Veera Somkwamkid led a march of several hundred supporters on a trek up to the Mor E Daeng cliff located on the threshold of the Preah Vihear sanctuary.

The marchers were prevented from accessing the 4.6 sq km disputed zone. Eventually, the army agreed to permit eight of the group members, including Mr Veera, to enter the area. Mr Veera later concluded there were a few areas where Cambodian soldiers had indeed taken control and that the Thai military could do nothing. It was a de facto loss of our land, Mr Veera said.

He vowed to head another march to the hill-top sanctuary this Saturday, the very day when the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) plans to hold a major rally in Bangkok to mark the third anniversary of the Sept 19 military coup.

The PAD's planned march has alarmed army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda. He is concerned that if any trekker were to be "captured" by the Cambodian soldiers, the incident would set off a chain of reaction that could have far-reaching consequences on national security and bilateral relations.

Mr Veera has reportedly distributed leaflets to villagers in provinces close to Preah Vihear in an apparent bid to drum up local support "to reclaim Thailand's rightful ownership" of the ancient Hindu temple and the disputed land.

The military has coordinated with the provincial authorities in recruiting volunteers to keep the Veera march from trespassing into sensitive areas. No military personnel will be deployed as crowd control, so as to prevent any untoward incident and preclude any claims that the military was using force against the PAD members, a military officer revealed.

The source added that, after all, the march may simply be intended to steal the public spotlight from the gathering by its rival the UDD in Bangkok on the same day.

A high-level source in the army conceded the significance of the Preah Vihear issue has been somewhat uderplayed by the government and the Foreign Ministry. The military has tried to mend fences with Cambodia and cool the bilateral heat, although any reduction of troops in the disputed area would be for the government to decide. Still, the same source maintained that the military was also wary about the Preah Vihear affair becoming further complicated by the country's internal politics.

The trouble with the disputed area is that Cambodian soldiers and villagers had constructed houses and shops there long before the Thai troops started to make a "counter-presence".

The Cambodian occupants had taken root in the area since 1999, whereas the Thai soldiers have only gone into the zone in July last year.

The source said the Cambodian occupants are uncompromising in their stand that the disputed land belongs to their country and that they were only allowing the Thai soldiers to "stay" there temporarily.

The best the Thai soldiers can do now is practice restraint, stand their ground and refuse to see the border land chiselled away.

Wassana Nanuam reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post
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