Thais and Cambodians meet over border temple row

Other News Materials 21 July 2008 09:32 (UTC +04:00)

Thailand and Cambodia Monday kicked off a joint meeting aimed at defusing an escalating row over an ancient Hindu temple that turned into a tense military standoff on the Thai-Cambodian border, dpa reported.

Thai Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niempradit and Cambodian Defence Minister Teah Banh met at the Indochina Hotel in Aranyaprathet, Sa Kaeo province, 270 kilometres east of Bangkok, to commence talks on the Preah Vihear temple controversy.

Members of the General Border Committee (GBC), set up several years ago to handle border issues, will join them later. A joint press conference was planned at mid-day.

The meeting is meant to defuse an intensifying dispute over the ownership of a 4.6-square-kilometre plot of land adjoining Preah Vihear, an 11th century Hindu temple with a long history of causing border tension between the two neighbouring countries.

The temple sits on a cliff that defines the Thai-Cambodian border between Si Sa Khet and Phrea Vihear provinces in Thailand and Cambodia, respectively.

Last week Thailand and Cambodia sent about 4,000 troops to the vicinity of Preah Vihear temple, also called Phra Viharn in Thai.

The temple was the cause of a border spat five decades ago that ended up at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1962. Cambodia won, but the row was reignited by the World Heritage Committee's decision to list the temple as a UNESCO site earlier this month despite Thai objections.

Three Thais were briefly detained on July 15 for crossing into a portion of the temple compound that is still subject to a border demarcation dispute. The three, part of an ultranationalist Buddhist group, were released within hours but prompted Thailand to send paramilitary troops to the contested area, where they remained.

The border spat standoff comes at a sensitive time politically for both Cambodia and Thailand.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen faces an election on July 27, 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.

Cambodia's efforts to list the temple compound, but excluding the disputed area, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site became politically charged for Thailand last month when Samak's government first backed the proposal, then withdrew its support after intense public criticism.

Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Patamma was forced to resign over the issue.

The border spat also coincided with the annual foreign ministers meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore this week, although it is not officially on the agenda.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo urged Cambodia and Thailand to exercise utmost restraint while finding peaceful solutions to the row.

"We urge both sides to exercise utmost restraint and resolve this issue amicably, in the spirit of ASEAN solidarity and good neighbourliness," Yeo said after an informal dinner of ASEAN officials on the eve of annual ministerial meetings.