Cambodian and Thai officials offered soothing words about military relations between the two countries while troop numbers along the contentious border continued to mount yesterday, a day before two Thais go to trial here on spying charges.
“We believe that there will not be armed conflict, because both governments are trying to build trust and avoid armed conflict by using channels of dialogue,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday.
Mr Siphan declined comment on the military’s latest deployment of troops and tanks to a 4.6-square-km area claimed by Thailand near Preah Vihear temple, but stood by the government’s refusal to remove a Cambodian flag posted inside it.
“The flag represents Cambodian sovereignty, and it is posted in Cambodian territory. Nobody can force Cambodia to take away its flag,” he said.
In a statement issued Friday, the Foreign Ministry called Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s recent request that Cambodia remove the flag “insulting.”
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi said Thailand would be sending Cambodia a formal protest over the flag “soon,” The Nation newspaper reported yesterday.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, said yesterday he was unaware of any such request. “So far, nothing,” he said.
Following similar Thai demands last week, Cambodia removed a stone tablet from the disputed area that also staked the country’s claim to the land. But Mr Kuong said the flag was a distinctly different matter.
“We destroyed our tablet because the Thai side destroyed its own tablet,” he said. “But the flag is a flag. The flag is located clearly in Cambodian territory.”
Despite Cambodia’s refusal to move the flag, Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan yesterday reportedly downplayed Cambodia’s recent border deployment, suggesting that it was nothing more than a routine exercise.
“Thailand and Cambodia are not involved in a serious conflict that could lead to war,” he told The Bangkok Post. “The Foreign Ministry should be able [to] settle the dispute through talks.”
Besides, Mr Prawit reportedly said, the flag was only a small one.
But Lieutenant General Chau Phirun, director general of the Defense Ministry’s equipment and technical department, said the buildup was a direct response to Thailand’s own deployment of extra troops to the border last week.
“Thailand recently deployed more troops and has built trenches using heavy tractors along the border in front of Preah Vihear temple,” he said.
According to Lt Gen Phirun, the Defense Ministry has been sending heavy artillery, tanks and personnel carriers to the border since Friday and would keep up the supply line as long as RCAF divisions posted to the area continued asking for it.
But the general said Cambodia would not be the first to attack.
“Cambodia will not fire its guns first. But if Thailand’s soldiers invade Cambodian territory, we will fire,” he warned.
Brigadier General Yim Phim, commander of the 8th Brigade on Preah Vihear’s Phnom Trap Mountain, said all was quiet yesterday.
“Nothing has changed. The situation is normal,” he said.
In Phnom Penh today, the municipal court will hear the case of two Thais, including ultranationalist activist Veera Somkwamkid, on espionage charges that carry a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
Mr Veera and six other Thais were arrested for entering Cambodia illegally on Dec 29. Five of them were convicted of illegal entry last month and sentenced to nine-month suspended jail terms.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)