preah vihear temple – Thai troop strength continued to build in the vicinity of Preah Vihear temple Thursday despite a promise from a Thai military commander Wednesday to halt the flow of reinforcements to their positions at a pagoda near the World Heritage Site.
Thursday also saw the arrival of Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who brought a message to the Thai commander stationed at the pagoda on Preah Vihear mountain that Cambodia wants to settle the dispute peacefully, and also a strong statement that the area is historically and indisputably Cambodian territory and is recognized as such under international law.
Holding an impromptu news conference at the pagoda’s entrance, where an estimated 400 Thai troops are believed to be camped, Phay Siphan displayed three maps, including the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling on Preah Vihear, which settled the temple’s ownership question with Thailand and shows the area firmly within Cambodia.
Phay Siphan then entered the pagoda to meet with Colonel Chayanthuay Soungnern, deputy commander of the Thai frontier task force, to ask that the Thai troops respect the sanctity of the pagoda and withdraw to another location.
“The Nazis during World War II used [churches] as military bases, and only the Khmer Rouge turned pagodas into military camps,” Phay Siphan said before entering the religious compound. Monks at the pagoda also addressed the commander to reiterate the call to respect the location’s neutrality. RCAF commanders stationed at the pagoda’s entrance had already agreed to a reciprocal withdrawal if the Thais agreed to move locations.
Replying to Phay Siphan, the Thai colonel said his troops would move outside the pagoda, which was greeted with a cheer by a small group of monks, locals and visiting journalists from Phnom Penh. The commander also told the assembled crowd that his forces were in Cambodia to protect the safety of “Thai tourists,” and that they would leave when protests in Thailand, against the listing of Preah Vihear as a heritage site, abated.
“We won’t stay long,” he said through a translator.
Thai tourists have been unable to visit Preah Vihear since June 22, when Thai protestors prompted Cambodia authorities to shut the border gate with Thailand.
Phay Siphan also brought a message from Prime Minister Hun Sen to the Thais that he didn’t want to see “one drop of blood spilled between Cambodians and Thais.”
By Thursday afternoon, however, fresh units of Thai border troops and special forces rangers were arriving at regular intervals to relieve the troops stationed at the pagoda since Tuesday. In contrast to the morning’s brief moment of levity following the Thai commander’s comments, the afternoon saw Cambodian troops, who are increasingly heavily armed, grimly watching the Thai military build up at the pagoda.
“As you know from yesterday, and this morning, they made promises…but they just do what they want,” said Sar Thavy, Preah Vihear deputy governor, as he sat opposite the entrance to the pagoda. “Now it just looks silly,” he said of the Thai promises to cease the flow of reinforcements and to the latest agreement to vacate the pagoda.
Several RCAF officials interviewed Thursday said the government’s order to take no aggressive action against the Thais was holding fast, though they also expressed a little skepticism at such orders given the continued Thai buildup inside Cambodian territory.
“We are trying by all means possible to avoid fighting,” said RCAF Colonel Som Bopharoath. “Our troops are very patient, but they are also very tired and very angry,” he said.
“If we talk about national and international law, the Thais are wrong, and we know it,” he added.