Friday, 4 March 2011

Both sides not firing, just reinforcing

via CAAI

Published: 3/03/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

Thai villagers living near Preah Vihear Temple are now familiar with Cambodia's BM-21 multiple rocket launchers, used in the border conflict with Thailand. The weapon can release 40 rockets at a time and these missiles can reach as far as 40 kilometres away.

The Thai army has its own teeth. It has the DTI-1 multiple rocket launchers jointly developed by the Thai Defence Ministry and China. With a shooting range of 60-180km, the DTI-1 is not suitable for armed border spats, however.

The main weapon for Thailand is the 155-mm Caesar self-propelled howitzer artillery, with a shooting range of 40km. The howitzer, made by Giat of France and used by the army since 2006, is the main weapon to counter Cambodia, in addition to the 105mm artillery. There is a joke among Thai soldiers that Cambodian troops hate "Caesar salad".

The howitzer was the main target of attacks in the field and in the diplomatic move by Cambodia. Phnom Penh has protested at the United Nations Security Council by alleging that the Thai army had used banned cluster bombs fired by the howitzer upon its soldiers. Thailand denied the allegation and in order to silence this claim for good, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has ordered all howitzer artillery to be returned to the depots.

The Cambodian government also told the Security Council that Keo Sikha Kiri Savara pagoda sitting in the 4.6 square kilometre disputed area near the 11th century Hindu temple, had been severely damaged by Thai weapons. But the fact is the pagoda and its vicinity have been only slightly damaged, after several rounds of artillery shooting. The pagoda, the Cambodian flag and pole still stand there.

But now border tensions have eased, thanks to the "gentlemen's agreement" between army Chief-of-Staff Gen Dapong Rattanasuwan, and Maj Gen Hun Manet, the deputy army leader of Cambodia and son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, at Sa-ngam Pass on the border in Phu Sing district of Si Sa Ket on Feb 19.

But Thailand is anxious that the agreement could be broken any day and continues to carry out troop and weapons reinforcements at the border in Kantharalak district of Si Sa Ket, due to signs that Cambodia is sending more soldiers and tanks at night and continues to use Keo Sikha Kiri Savara pagoda and Preah Vihear as an operations base. Such action already violates the agreement, as both sides had agreed that there would be no troop movements after 5pm.

In addition to troop and tank reinforcements, Thailand believes that Cambodia plans to order more BM-21s from Russia along with Chinese-made rockets.

Thai military leaders are not sure whether Maj Gen Hun Manet will be able to keep his promise, because he was rather quiet during the meeting, and nobody ever knows what his father has in mind.

"The talks [with Maj Gen Hun Manet] was not a ceasefire agreement. Thai soldiers have the right of self-defence and will retaliate if they are shot at first," Gen Dapong said.

As the border tensions eased, Thailand downgraded the alert under the "Chakrapongse Bhuvanath" plan from maximum alert to the second phase, meaning that while all units have to remain alert, some have been ordered to return to their camps.

The army has also restructured areas under the responsibility of Suranaree Task Force under the "Phra Viharn Plan", by dividing its fighting units into three sectors.

The Viharn 1 Task Force is directly taking responsibility for the dispute area including Phu Ma Khua. The Viharn 2 Task Force takes care of the border area in Surin, opposite Cambodia' Oddar Meanchey province. The Viharn 3 Task Force is in charge of the area in Sa-ngam Pass in Phu Sing district of Si Sa Ket, opposite Along Veng of Cambodia.

The border situation will soon be monitored by observers from Indonesia to make sure that new fighting will not erupt. The agreement to dispatch the Indonesian delegation - which will stay on both sides of the border - was reached at the meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Jakarta on Feb 22. The army is reluctant about having Indonesian observers on Thai soil, due to concerns about that country's neutrality. But it has no choice since this is the government's policy.

Gen Prayuth has said that the observers will not have full access to information of the army, including a ban on entering strategic locations at the border. "The request [of Indonesia to visit Thai army border posts] will be considered on a case by case basis," he said.

The Second Army and Suranaree Task Force have prepared an area in Kantharalak district to accommodate the 15 observers to stay, though the details will be discussed in the Joint Boundary Commission between Thailand and Cambodia. The date of the meeting has not been set.

The JBC will be followed by a meeting of the General Border Committee led by Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and his Cambodian counterpart Teah Banh, tentatively set for this month. The main issue on the GBC agenda will concern troop reductions and the role of the Indonesian observers.

Thailand has sent its soldiers to join UN peacekeepers in East Timor, Aceh in Indonesia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi and Sudan. But the army is not comfortable having observers from Indonesia here, as it believes that this border issue can only be sorted out by Thailand and Cambodia.

And a solution does not seem likely to be reached in the near future.

Wassana Nanuam reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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