Thai and Cambodian troops will start to withdraw Saturday from the disputed border area around Preah Vihear temple after a month-long military standoff, Defense Minister Tea Banh said Thursday.
The breakthrough came after a series of negotiations this week between the countries, Tea Banh said, which also helped to defuse the standoff at the Ta Moan temples on the border of Thailand and Oddar Meanchey province.
“We do not want a confrontation of armed forces. Both parties want to live peacefully,” Tea Banh said by telephone Thursday, declining to comment further.
Defense Ministry Secretary of State Neang Phat led the Cambodian delegation at this week’s meetings, held first Tuesday in Phnom Penh and then Wednesday in Thailand’s Surin province.
“The result of the meeting was successful. Both parties have agreed to withdraw most soldiers from Preah Vihear temple before August 18,” he said by telephone Thursday.
Neang Phat said the upcoming meeting in Thailand between foreign ministers Monday will determine what comes next.
“We didn’t want our troops stationed a long time at the remote area of the temple, Ta Moan or Preah Vihear,” Neang Phat said, declining to provide further details of his meetings.
However, RCAF Region 4 Commander Chea Morn, who joined Neang Phat and RCAF Major General Srey Dek at both meetings this week, said the two sides agreed to begin Saturday the gradual removal of all but 10 Thai and 10 Cambodian troops from Preah Vihear temple.
“We agreed to keep just 10 soldiers from each side at the pagoda,” Chea Morn said by telephone Thursday.
Chea Morn did not know exactly how many troops will leave the overlapping claims area Saturday, or how long it will take to reduce troop numbers to 20 soldiers.
Thai troops around the Preah Vihear pagoda are estimated to number 450, Chea Morn said, declining to reveal the number of Cambodian troops at Preah Vihear, estimated in the past at more than 1,000.
He also said he did not know how far Thai or Cambodian troops would withdraw from the disputed border area.
The Thai Embassy could not be reached for comment, and the Thai Defense Ministry said no information was available.
Thani Thongphakdi, deputy director-general of the Thai Foreign Ministry’s department of information in Bangkok, confirmed the agreement reached at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The two sides agreed to redeploy their troops in the area around Kao Phra Viharn—namely, (1) the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Pagoda area and (2) its surrounding area—as appropriate and equally,” he wrote Thursday night by e-mail.
Kao Phra Viharn is the Thai name for Preah Vihear.
Thani said negotiations did not cover the standoff 150 km west of Preah Vihear temple at the Ta Moan complex.
However, Srey Dek and Chea Morn both said military officials did discuss the standoff at Ta Moan, which began July 28 when 100 Thai troops blocked Cambodia’s entrance to the area.
On Thursday all armed Thai forces removed themselves from the temples of Ta Moan Thom and Ta Moan Touch, the two temples that Cambodia claims in the three-temple complex, allowing unarmed soldiers and civilians from both countries to visit, Chea Morn said.
RCAF Region 4 Deputy Commander Nark Vong said the 300 Thai troops at Ta Moan moved 30 meters back from the complex Thursday morning at 8 am and opened the entrance gate.
Nark Vong said the 300 Cambodian troops stationed at the Ta Moan complex withdrew 40 meters from the complex.
“We agreed that both parties cannot take weapons to the temple,” Nark Vong said by telephone.
Before Thailand closed the Ta Moan temple entrance gate at 5 pm Thursday, about 15 Cambodian and 30 Thai soldiers, all unarmed, had visited the temple.
“The situation is better than before,” Nark Vong said, adding that the Thai soldiers agreed to reopen the gate this morning at 8 am.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he tried to visit the Ta Moan complex Monday, hiking 13 km to reach the temple from the nearest town, only to be turned away by the Thai military.
“I didn’t have the patience to wait,” Phay Siphan said by telephone Thursday.
RCAF Colonel Som Bopharoath, stationed at Preah Vihear temple since the standoff’s start, said the situation is stable, but he is happy to now see an end in sight.
“I will meet my children at home, and I will have my hair cut,” he said by telephone Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Kurczy)