Saturday, 26 July 2008

New Thai foreign minister will seek to end border row with Cambodia

The Earth Times
Sat, 26 Jul 2008
Author : DPA

Bangkok - A retired career diplomat was appointed Thai foreign minister Saturday in time to lead fresh talks with Cambodia over a bitter border dispute. Tej Bunnag is widely considered a "professional choice" following the resignation of his successor Noppadon Pattama earlier this month, according to local reports.

Noppadon, the former lawyer for controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, became tripped up by appearing to give ground to Cambodia in exchange, it is rumoured, favours for his old boss.

The countries are holding urgent talks Monday in Siem Reap in a bid to defuse a row over joint claims to land adjoining an ancient Hindu temple on their border that threatens to escalate out of control.

Opposition activists have used the temple dispute as a stick beat the government with in a country where nationalist claims lie near the surface of political life. Cambodian reaction has been equally stubborn as a general election nears.

Tej Bunnag, 65, educated at Malvern College and Cambridge University in Britain, has served as ambassador to China, France, the United Nations and the United States.

Preah Vihear, an 11th-century Hindu temple built on a 525-metre- high cliff on the Dongrak mountain range that defines the Thai- Cambodian border, has been the cause of a border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia for decades.

In 1962, the two countries agreed to settle joint claims to the temple at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Cambodia won, but the court stopped short of defining the border in the area.

Thailand claims that a 4.6-square-kilometre plot of land adjoining the temple is still disputed.

The ancient spat got a fresh start earlier this month when UNESCO agreed to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site. The inscription excluded the 4.6 square kilometres of disputed territory, and Thailand protested the listing.

Noppadon, who first backed the Cambodian proposal and then reversed his position, was forced to resign after failing to block the listing of Preah Vihear.

The spat escalated from a diplomatic row to a potential military conflict last week, when three Thais were detained for entering the disputed temple territory.

Although the threesome were quickly released, troops were called in from both sides to protect their border.

While Cambodia first appealed to the Association of South-East Asian Nations and then the UN Security Council to get involved in the border standoff, both bodies have urged the two countries to settle the matter bilaterally.

A bilateral meeting Monday between Cambodian Defence Minister Teah Banh and General Boonsrang Niempradit, supreme commander of the Thai Army, in Sa Kaeo province, Thailand, 270 kilometres east of Bangkok, failed to find a quick fix to the joint claims on the temple's surrounding area.

The temple sits on the border between Si Sa Khet and Phrea Vihear provinces in Thailand and Cambodia, respectively, and is about 400 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.

The border spat has come at a sensitive time politically for both Cambodia and Thailand.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen faces a parliamentary election Sunday, and Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is under mounting pressure to resign, in part over his government's alleged mishandling of the Preah Vihear affair.

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