preah vihear temple – The government yesterday celebrated the second anniversary of the listing of Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site with a fete at the mountaintop sanctuary, where Thai and Cambodian troops have faced off since the 2008 inscription sparked fighting.
Tension at the front was low yesterday and Tuesday, with soldiers playing volleyball in courts beside dugouts and children weaving in and out of the fortified ridges along the roughly 550-meter high promontory.
But General Chea Dara, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, said during a speech at yesterday’s celebration that RCAF troops were always ready to defend the disputed land around the temple.
“The clash between troops has already taken place two times,” he said, apparently referring to fighting with Thai soldiers on Oct 15, 2008, soon after the listing, and again on April 3 last year. Both days saw casualties on at least one side.
“Cambodian soldiers under [Prime Minister] Hun Sen have always been successful until now,” Gen Dara said. “The [Cambodian] soldiers have the ability to protect the territory.”
Three other officials also spoke during the event, including Oum Mara, governor of Preah Vihear province. Mr Mara reiterated a position often repeated yesterday–that the disputed area close to the temple is Cambodian and not Thai land. Although the International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia, Thailand has since claimed a nearby 4.6-square-kilometer parcel of land.
“Thailand is always using the unilateral map without consent from the international [community] as proof to show that the 4.6-square-kilometer land is theirs,” Mr Mara said. “There is no 4.6-square-kilometer [area]. The overlap area claimed by Thailand is Cambodian territory.”
After their speeches, Mr Mara and the other speakers sat down among a group of around 150 military and government officials who attended yesterday’s ceremony, which was held between the fourth and final pavilions of the 800-meter -long, 11th-century Hindu sanctuary. About 300 RCAF soldiers stood at ease to the west of the makeshift stage, a tarp laid over the temple’s sandstone blocks. To the east, 100 or so civilians watched.
The second half of the two-hour event was taken up by performances by traditional Khmer dancers, a pinpeat orchestra, and drummers, who by the end of the celebration had nearly everyone clapping to their beat. By that time, a few tourists had stumbled across the celebration and stayed to watch.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, emphasized that yesterday’s celebration was not aimed at angering Thailand.
“After this property was listed as a World Heritage Site, everybody has the duty to preserve it, no matter politics,” he said in an interview at the temple. “This [celebration] has nothing to do with the territorial issue.”
But at a news conference later in the day, Mr Siphan spoke in front of two maps of Preah Vihear temple and the surrounding area. One map showed what Mr Siphan said was the internationally accepted border. The other, which was presented as a Thai “unilateral” map, showed the temple within Thai territory.
“This one is a fabricated map used at the time of the  judgment,” he said, adding that Thailand continues to use this map. “They keep using that.”
At the conference, which included a review of Preah Vihear temple’s recent history, an interpreter translated statements into Thai.
“It’s a press conference to educate and to share the information,” he said, specifically mentioning Thai soldiers as a target.
Asked if Cambodia planned to send more troops to the ancient monument, Mr Siphan said the answer to that question was an “easy” no. He made reference to unrest that recently rocked the Thai capital in his reply.
“What we concentrate [on],” he said, is to “create dialogue, atmosphere to have peace building and we wait for the central Thai government to maintain stability to talk again. We understand they are in trouble in that area. So we wait for that.”
Officials at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached yesterday.
Adding to already tense relations, Bangkok and Phnom Penh mutually recalled their ambassadors in November after fugitive ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was named an adviser to the Cambodian government.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said yesterday that resuming diplomatic relations “depends on the Thai side.”
“The situation is still the same,” he said.
Soldiers yesterday and Tuesday said the frontline had been quiet in recent months, though troops remain alert.
“The situation is now quiet,” said soldier Doeu Sideth. “Nothing has happened these two months.”
But, he added, “We always watch each other. We are watching them and they are watching us.”
Bech Bunsont, a member of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit who is stationed at the temple, also said tension was low. And like Mr Sideth, he said he was happy to take part in yesterday’s celebration.
“We are born as Cambodian and we are proud,” he said. “We are happy to celebrate this.”