preah vihear temple – Dressed in military fatigues, Prime Minster Hun Sen on Saturday greeted a Thai delegation at the flashpoint temple here, only hours after giving a speech calling for peace but warning that Cambodia would defend its territory against any Thai encroachment.
During his nearly two-hour speech at the inauguration of the new $3.5 million headquarters in Choam Ksan district for the RCAF 3rd Division, Mr Hun Sen said Cambodia would only use force against its neighbor if provoked.
“Any possible use of force happens only when they invade us,” the prime minister said.
“The Cambodian government reiterates that the border plan has to be solved through peace talks without using force,” Mr Hun Sen said to more than a thousand soldiers who stood at attention during the entire speech.
The premier then referred to the automatic weaponry and tanks aligned before him.
“I would like to confirm that tanks and all kinds of guns are not for exhibition. [They are] for use to fight the enemy, the enemy that comes into Cambodian territory,” he said.
The prime minister went on to order soldiers not to cross over the border into Thailand.
“You’re not allowed to fight on their land,” he said.
Following his speech, the prime minister, along with his wife, Bun Rany, and two of his sons visited Preah Vihear temple where he greeted Major General Weewalit Chornsamrit, commander of the Royal Thai Army’s 2nd region, and his delegation.
“I’m happy that you got my invitation to come to Cambodia and a Cambodian temple,” Mr Hun Sen said to the Thai delegation after being helped down the steep stairs of the top level of the 11th century Hindu temple. Mr Hun Sen said that it was his first visit to the temple.
“Since I was born in the Khmer nation, I knew that this temple is Cambodia’s temple. So my feeling is always here even though I am not present here,” Mr Hun Sen said during the brief and friendly midday exchange, which ended with the prime minister introducing two of his sons, including Brigadier General Hun Manet, to Mr Weewalit, who politely told them that they were “handsome.”
Mr Hun Sen then walked half way down the winding and at times very steep three-kilometer mountain road on the Cambodian side of the border and spoke to a gathering of more than 100 soldiers.
“We won’t let anyone invade Cambodia this time,” Mr Hun Sen said in an apparent reference to July 15, 2008, when three Thai demonstrators broke through a now closed border gate at the base of the temple. The incident was sparked by Cambodia’s successful listing of the temple as a Unesco world heritage site, which some nationalist Thais still claim as their own.
“Cambodian forces are more than enough,” Mr Hun Sen said to gathered troops in a shaded clearing. He then walked with his wife between tables of soldiers eating noodle soup and bread and made small talk.
Soldiers interviewed afterward said the premier trip was a morale booster.
“I am happy that about the Prime Minister’s visits because this encourages me,” said Lun Vanna, a soldier in the 8th Brigade, 3rd Division.
The prime minister’s talk half way down the mountain echoed some of the points in his nearly two-hour speech that morning to inaugurate the 3rd Division’s new headquarters, which are about 30 km from a disputed 4.6-square-kilometer area around Preah Vihear temple.
The prime minister’s Preah Vihear visit comes following a border clash in Pursat province a little more than a week ago, and a ten minute firefight that erupted on Jan 24 about 20 km east of Preah Vihear temple. The skirmish near the temple, the third since 2008, was put down to an unspecified misunderstanding.
Soldiers, wives and vendors living at the temple said on Saturday that there had been some concern about the Thai reaction to the Prime Minister’s visit, and soldiers with large caliber machine guns and rocket launchers were posted at short intervals all along the road up to the mountain and the ridges that face the Thai line to the east of the temple.
But the premier’s trip appeared to go smoothly and Lieutenant-General Chhum Sucheat, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said there had been no obvious tension leading up to the premier’s trip.
“There was not serious tension before the Prime Minister’s visit,” Mr Sucheat said by telephone, explaining that there was a meeting between Thai and Cambodian officials where the Mr Weewalit, the Thai commander of his army’s 2nd region, asked to meet the Cambodian premier at a pagoda near the temple. Cambodian officials said the commander should come to the temple itself.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said yesterday that Mr Hun Sen’s trip was routine and partly designed so that the premier could inspect the local infrastructure around the temple.
The English-language newspaper the Bangkok Post reported on Sunday that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had contested Cambodia’s ownership of the area around the Preah Vihear temple.
“The Thai government will use Prime Minister Hun Sen’s comment to explain to the World Heritage Committee that the area around Preah Vihear temple clearly belongs to Thailand, the Bangkok Post quoted Mr Abhisit as saying.
The Nation, another Bangkok daily printed in English, reported yesterday that “peace prevailed” when Mr Hun Sen visited the Preah Vihear temple despite the 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said reiterated that his government is not claiming that Preah Vihear is a Thai temple.
“Thailand is not disputing the ownership of the temple. We are disputing with Cambodia the areas around the temple,” he said.
Mr Hun Sen is scheduled to visit Ta Moan Thom temple in Oddar Meanchey province’s Banteay Ampil district.
(Additional reporting by Simon Marks)