Thai officials yesterday sought to deny remarks attributed this week to a Thai diplomat who purportedly admitted his country had fired cluster munitions during February’s fighting with Cambodia at the Preah Vihear border.
The denials came as the two countries pursued border talks under Asean mediation in Indonesia, but as the Thai military appeared to sit out a meeting on frontier security matters that had been scheduled to occur simultaneously.
On Wednesday, the UK-based Cluster Munitions Coalition said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand’s ambassador to Geneva, had told the group that Thai forces had fired 155mm so-called Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions, which the group identified as a type of cluster munitions.
The apparent admission appeared to reverse weeks of denial following accusations from both the Cambodian government and local NGOs that had visited the area.
But Thani Thongphakdi, spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry, sought yesterday to clarify the ambassador’s words, claiming that the weapons in question were not cluster munitions.
“I think our ambassador in Geneva was quoted out of context,” Mr Thani said by e-mail. “I believe he told the CMC that the Thai army had used ‘Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions,’ or DPICM. In the report we received from him, he did not say that we had used cluster munitions.”
Another Thai government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the matter, also insisted that the ambassador had not admitted to the use of cluster munitions.
“It is still contested whether or not such weapons are classified as cluster munitions,” she said. “There are differences in terms of classification in the army of different countries. The US don’t classify such weapons as cluster bombs, for example.”
Mr Thani insisted Cambodia’s own choice of weapons during the border fighting in February, which claimed military and civilian lives on both sides, gave the Thai army every right to use the rockets the ambassador alluded to.
“The usage was carried out in self-defense on the basis of necessity, proportionality and strict compliance with the military code of conduct, in response to Cambodia’s use of the BM-21 multiple rocket launcher system which lacks precision and put our civilians in danger,” he said.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong yesterday stood by the government’s claim that Thailand had used cluster munitions and dismissed Mr Thani’s defense of the rockets as an excuse.
“They say that as an excuse to use cluster bombs…which the international community condemns,” he said.
More than 50 countries have signed on to a voluntary ban of the weapons, which have come under wide criticism for the disproportionate number of civilian casualties they cause. Neither Cambodia nor Thailand has joined.
As for Cambodia’s alleged use of BM-21 rockets, Mr Kuong referred questions to the Defense Ministry, where officials could not be reached yesterday.
Defense Minister General Tea Banh and other military officials are in Indonesia for a meeting with their Thai counterparts about security issues along the border. But Mr Kuong said Thailand’s own military delegation had yet to arrive. According to Thai media, Bangkok has refused to send its military officials to Indonesia because it was insisting on holding the talks in Cambodia or Thailand.
Employees at the Thai Embassy in Geneva yesterday said Ambassador Sihasak was unavailable.