By Agence France-Presse, Updated: 5/7/2011
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen launched an aggressive attack on Thailand over a border dispute during the first session of a summit of Southeast Asian leaders on Saturday, officials and ministers said.
Senior officials said Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders were taken aback at the salvo across the meeting table, regarding a topic that was not even on the formal agenda of the two-day summit in Jakarta.
The trade and economy-focused summit was at risk of being hijacked by tensions over the bloody military conflict which has killed 85 people and temporarily displaced 85,000 in months of clashes.
An Asian foreign minister, who did not want to be named, said Hun Sen was "quite aggressive" when he raised the issue during the closed-door session.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva confirmed that Hun Sen raised the dispute and repeated Bangkok's willingness to resolve the issue peacefully.
"We had a frank discussion this morning," he told reporters after the meeting.
"We need to resolve the problem because we don't want this to be a problem that would affect ASEAN's agenda on community building," he added.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Abhisit was "disappointed" and had rebutted Hun Sen's allegations that Thai troops were attacking Cambodian territory.
"He said he was very disappointed to hear Cambodia accusing Thailand of using force against Cambodia. In fact we have not. In fact we have been helping Cambodia through difficult times," the spokesman said.
"Despite our good intentions, yes, he (Abhisit) was disappointed that Prime Minister Hun Sen misunderstood our intention."
The dispute centres on a small area around an 11th-century Khmer temple which belongs to Cambodia under a 1962 World Court ruling.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters that Phnom Penh had done everything it could to resolve the issue but would never agree to Bangkok's demands to pull troops out of the temple.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to ASEAN to help solve the problem peacefully," he said.
"I have already said that Cambodia can never withdraw their troops from their own territory and by putting this condition, Thailand knows very well that Cambodia can never accept that."
Philippine presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said the session was more animated than most participants had expected.
"We were surprised, many people were surprised that the Cambodian side brought it up and it took quite a bit of their time," he said.
"It became a little dramatic but I think that's just the way that Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers speeches."
As chair of ASEAN, Indonesia has been trying to mediate a settlement but it has made little progress.
The neighbours have agreed in principle to allow a small group of Indonesian military observers to monitor the border but efforts to broker a permanent ceasefire have broken down amid mutual distrust and accusations.
The row is a blight on ASEAN's plans to create a more closely integrated economic community by 2015, with mechanisms for conflict resolution and enhanced security cooperation.
Some senior ASEAN officials are keen to burnish the group's international relevance by being seen to resolve the dispute, something which does not come naturally to an economic block that cherishes principles of non-interference.
Thailand has insisted the row be resolved bilaterally with ASEAN help, but has steadfastly rejected Cambodian calls for UN involvement.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said there was little enthusiasm among ASEAN leaders for the issue to be internationalised.
"I think what all the other ASEAN leaders have been saying this morning is that we should keep the conflict within the ASEAN family," he said.