Saturday, 19 July 2008

Cambodian and Thai forces nearly exchange fire amid temple standoff

Troops from Cambodia and Thailand have been amassing around Preah Vihear, an ancient temple claimed by both countries. UNESCO recently granted Cambodia's application for World Heritage Site status for the site.

By Arthur Bright
July 19, 2008

A confrontation between Thai and Cambodian troops Thursday nearly resulted in violence, as the dispute between the two countries over the Preah Vihear temple worsens.

The Associated Press reports that the latest incident is part of what Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called a "deteriorating situation" between the two countries, caused by the dispute over the 11th-century temple and its surroundings, located along the border between the two countries.

Thai soldiers entered the surrounding area on Tuesday, staking out positions at a Buddhist temple compound nearby. However, some resident Cambodian monks remained and Cambodian soldiers have continued to visit them even after the Thais arrived.

A large group of Cambodian troops came to the compound Thursday planning to spend the night, and the two sides raised their rifles at each other when the Thais moved to evict them in an incident lasting about 10 minutes before the Cambodians departed, Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said.

"We exercised patience to prevent weapons from being fired," he said.

The near bloodshed came after several attempts by Thai nationalist protesters to occupy the temple. On Tuesday, three Thais were arrested in Preah Vihear by Cambodian forces, after the trio illegally entered the area and attempted to raise the Thai flag over the temple, according to the Bangkok Post. The protesters were later released without charges. And Reuters reports that before the military confrontation Thursday, a large group of Thai protesters attempted to reach the temple, but were blocked by Thai police and angry local villagers.

"Go home, go home, you troublemakers!," one woman shouted at members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an anti-government group that planned a rally at the Preah Vihear temple to protest its listing as a World Heritage site. ...

Prasert Aramsrivorapong, chief of the Kantaralak district where the villagers live, said the PAD had no right to stir up trouble on the border.

"Soldiers are dealing with the problem at the temple. We don't want these people to cause any trouble," Prasert said.

Both sides began sending troops to the Preah Vihear area after United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that it was granting Cambodia's application to add the Preah Vihear temple to UNESCO's World Heritage List, which consists of "properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value." Preah Vihear has long been a source of contention between Cambodia and Thailand, as both sides have claimed the temple and the area around it over the years. UNESCO's listing of the temple is seen by some as strengthening Cambodian sovereignty over the site, though The Phnom Penh Post notes that in announcing the listing, Mr. Sen emphasized that it "does not affect the process of border negotiations between Cambodia and Thailand."

The BBC reports that title to the temple fell to Cambodia largely through the actions of France and the International Court of Justice, which ruled the temple belonged to Cambodia in 1962.

The international court decision awarding Preah Vihear to Cambodia in 1962 was not unanimous. It rested largely on Thailand's failure to protest against the French-drawn border line in the decades before.

At the time it was mapped, a hundred years ago, Thailand had few skilled cartographers of its own.

The French colonial cartographers were supposed to draw the border along the forested edge of the Dangret Escarpment, but they veered in a few hundred metres to put the temple on the Cambodian side. It is not clear why the Thais did not object then.

The Nation, a Thai newspaper, writes that despite the international court's decision, some Thais maintained that their country still had a claim to the temple by "intentionally misinterpreting" one of the terms of the ruling.

Legal misinterpretation by intellectuals has confused the powerful Thai sense of ownership. The entire world is aware that in 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled Preah Vihear was "situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia".

As a member of the United Nations, Thailand had to accept the ruling and hand the temple over to Cambodia. In the decades since then, there has been no legal bid to reclaim the site. Some legal experts intentionally misinterpreted Article 60 of the ICJ's rules by saying it reserved the right to reclaim the temple.

In fact, the article merely says that "in the event of a dispute as to the meaning or scope of judgement", the court will construe such matters upon the request of any party.

Therefore, in the language of the law, de facto and de jure, the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia.

Further, the Nation adds, some Thais are worried that the temple's listing in Cambodia could serve to strengthen its claim of sovereignty over other nearby areas whose ownership remains disputed.

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