Cambodia’s peace talks Monday with Thailand failed to resolve or defuse the escalating standoff at Preah Vihear temple, officials said, though both sides agreed not to send more troops to the border.
After eight hours of closed-door negotiations between Defense Minister Tea Banh and Thai Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niumpradit, both countries walked out, saying Thai and Cambodian troops would hold their positions at Preah Vihear temple without breaking into violence, Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
“We have to continue the discussion,” Khieu Kanharith said by telephone Monday night, adding that he did not know when talks would resume. “We agreed that the situation at the border must be calmed down,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith said he was still unaware of the details of the meeting, as Tea Banh’s Cambodian delegation had yet to return from Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province.
“The Cambodian military and Thai military will keep the security at the border for now,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Tea Banh could not be reached for comment Monday.
Media reports stated that Boonsrang walked out of the meeting vowing to hold Thai troops in place.
“We both have legal problems of which we have informed our seniors to discuss,” Agence France-Presse quoted Boonsrang as saying after the meeting. “We will both bring back the problems to our governments.”
The military buildup began July 15 when Cambodian officials detained three Thai protestors who jumped the locked entrance to the temple, prompting hundreds of Thai troops to pour cross onto Cambodian-claimed soil and request their release.
As the two countries met Monday, troop reinforcements from both sides increased in numbers at the temple.
Cambodian Defense Ministry Secretary of State Soeung Kiry said he was not surprised today’s meeting failed to resolve the intensifying standoff at Preah Vihear temple, where thousands of Thai and Cambodian troops are now stationed.
“If there is fighting, we will have lost the opportunity of this meeting,” Soeung Kiry said by telephone Monday night.
“I am concerned it’s now up to the militaries of both parties. They have the weapons in their hands,” he added.
If the dispute cannot be resolved bilaterally, Khieu Kanharith said the next step for Cambodia is to request the intervention of the UN, which Cambodia informed Friday of the situation.
At the temple Monday, the mood was calm but increasingly apprehensive as the day started out with reports of Thai troop mobilization along several sections of the Cambodian border, particularly Anlong Veng in Oddar Meanchey province and O’Smach district in Banteay Meanchey province.
Banteay Meanchey Deputy Provincial Governor Sok Sareth confirmed Monday that both Thai and Cambodia troops have increased patrols along the border of his province.
“[Cambodian troops] are preparing to control the Cambodian side in case a bad event happens,” Sok Sareth said by telephone Monday.
He added that Thailand had informed Cambodia on July 15, the first day that troops began to amass at Preah Vihear, that it was closing all 47 border crossings with Banteay Meanchey province until further notice.
RCAF officers stationed at the temple also received information early Monday morning that some 20 Thai air force planes, including F-16 fighter jets, had landed at Ubon Ratchathani airbase as part of the military force now being dedicated to the temple operation, while more than 100 armored cars had been reported deployed at a location 60 km from the Thai military’s staging area opposite the entrance steps to Preah Vihear.
RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Kun Kim, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s right-hand man in the Cambodian military, also paid a visit to officers at the temple on Sunday evening and Monday. After touring the market area of the temple compound, which was laid with extra coils of razor wire on Monday, Kun Kim reiterated that Cambodian troops would adhere to finding a peaceful resolution to the armed confrontation – a possibility that sounded increasingly hollow as the talks wore into Monday evening.
“It’s not a problem. We will work as usual. [Cambodia and Thailand] are like brothers and sisters. We will let the top level work this out together,” Kun Kim told reporters.
Kun Kim was expected to meet with Thai border and special forces commanders at the occupied pagoda later Monday morning but his convoy of SUVs and heavily armed soldiers drove past the wat without stopping. RCAF Major General Srey Dek, commander of intervention Division 12 and operations chief at Preah Vihear, was left to relay a message to the waiting Thai officers on behalf of Kun Kim.
For the first time since taking control of the pagoda last Tuesday, Thai and Cambodian troops that patrolled the compound did not shoulder their assault rifles or carry side arms on Monday, a request that was made last week by Srey Dek and other RCAF officers who said that the religious sanctity of the site should be respected.
Despite the face-to-face cordiality of the Thai and RCAF commanders, an undercurrent of threat hung in the air Monday as small vendor stalls around the pagoda were told to clear out, with the warning that the area was a “shooting area.” Also spotted outside the pagoda for the first time were officers of the Cambodian army’s tank unit based in Battambang province and an RCAF artillery officer from Siem Reap province.
Commenting on the inconclusive talks with Thailand, Hang Soth, director-general of the National Authority for Preah Vihear, said late Monday night that he still had hope the military standoff would end peacefully. He also vowed to remain at the temple whatever the eventuality.
“I won’t leave the temple,” Hang Soth said in an interview at the Preah Vihear authority’s camp, which is located at the temple’s second level and is currently home to the authority’s civilian staff and a small unit of heritage police officers.
“This is an international heritage site. This is a life and death place for me. If I die here, I die with honor,” Hang Soth said, reiterating that he was still hopeful that both countries would reach a peaceful resolution.
Keo Neang, 46, a ministry of health nurse based at the temple, and who is providing basic medical service for the some 200 women and children who previously lived in the now all-but deserted market area, said that those villagers camped in a wooden pavilion near the Preah Vihear authority offices are in satisfactory health.
Economically, however, the mothers and children, who previously worked at the market, are suffering from the lack of income since the dispute escalated at the temple area last week, Keo Neang said.
“They are healthy but they are not happy, as they have no work and no money,” she said.
Medical preparations for the troops, however, if conflict does erupt are rudimentary at best, an RCAF medic said Monday. There are no supplies of blood on the mountain, and the plan is to patch the wounded up in the field and then transport them back to a military hospital in the Preah Vihear provincial capital, Tbeng Meanchey, which is some three hours away, over decrepit, unpaved roads.
Despite the military build up, foreign tourists continue to visit the temple, while a delegation of young Ministry of Tourism tour guides from the Angkor complex in Siem Reap arrived on Monday to deliver dried noodles, brightly-colored plastic rain coats and rice to the troops, handing out their donations after first standing to face Thailand and sing a rendition of the well-known nationalist song from the 1960s “Khmer Oeuy.”
The border standoff has also topped the agenda at this week’s annual Asean foreign ministers meeting in Singapore.
On Sunday, Asean Chair and Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo expressed concern over the standoff.
“We urged both sides to exercise utmost restraint and resolve this issue amicably, in the spirit of Asean solidarity and good neighborliness,” Yeo said in a statement released to the press.
Yeo also offered Asean’s support and facilities, “to be placed at the disposal of Cambodia and Thailand, in the event that they felt the need for further support to find an early resolution to the issue.”
On Monday, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Asean cannot “stand idly by without damaging its credibility,” Bloomberg reported. Thailand continued to maintain that its troops are stationed on Thai soil.
According to a statement posted Sunday on the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry Web site, Thailand’s representative at the Asean foreign ministers meeting stressed that all actions taken by Thailand were in territory under Thai sovereignty.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej both claimed that the pagoda where Thai troops are stationed is within their respective country’s territory in an exchange of letters last week.
(Reporting by Stephen Kurczy and Eang Mengleng in Phnom Penh and Yun Samean and Kevin Doyle at Preah Vihear temple.)