Tensions escalated dangerously at Preah Vihear temple Tuesday when Cambodian police arrested three Thai protestors who entered the temple area, prompting as many as 100 Thai soldiers to enter Cambodian-claimed territory to negotiate their release, officials said.
The Thai Embassy denied later Tuesday that its troops had entered Cambodian territory, claiming that the “few paramilitary personnel” who were in the border area were unarmed and only mobilized to escort their three citizens back into Thailand.
The incident began at about 6:30 am Tuesday, when the three protestors—a man, a Buddhist nun and a monk—were arrested after jumping over the wire fencing around the locked entrance to the temple, Preah Vihear National Authority Secretary-General Hang Soth said by telephone.
The Thai protestors said they had entered Cambodian territory as they wanted to pray at the temple, Hang Soth said, adding that authorities detained the three at a police station near the gate with Thailand and took their fingerprints.
Cambodian police and military personnel have been stationed at the temple’s entrance gate with Thailand since it was locked indefinitely following protests by Thais on June 22 against Cambodia’s bid to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site.
At around 12 pm, a group of some 20 Thai soldiers trekked unannounced through the jungle to a pagoda located along the Cambodian access road to the temple, Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said by telephone.
Surprised by the arrival of the troops at the Cambodian pagoda, local officials were further concerned when another 80 Thai soldiers gradually joined the original 20, Khieu Kanharith said.
“We had an order from the Prime Minister not to open fire unless under attack,” Khieu Kanharith added. “We have enough troops to repel the Thai army.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said the Thai military had violated “the sovereignty of Cambodia.”
“We need peace and did not want war,” he added.
In a faxed message to The Cambodia Daily on Tuesday afternoon, the Thai Embassy denied that Thai troops had crossed onto Cambodian soil.
“Thailand would like to dismiss rumors that Thai military personnel entered into Cambodian territory,” the embassy wrote.
“It is true that we introduce a few para-military personnel into the border area within Thai territory [Tuesday],” the embassy continued.
After “close coordination with their Cambodian counterparts, Thai civilian officials and unarmed para-military personnel from the Royal Thai Army’s 2nd Army Region escorted the three Thai nationals safely back to their domicile,” it added.
Thai Embassy First Secretary Chaturont Chaiyakam said by telephone that the area where the Thai military entered was disputed border territory.
“How do they know where the border is? It is unmarked border area. It is under negotiation,” he said. “We consider it Thai territory.”
Chaiyakam said “only a few” Thai officials crossed into the undemarcated border area, which he said Thailand and Cambodia can equally claim, to negotiate the release of the three Thais protestors.
“It’s their right if they want to be there,” he said. “They can be there because it is part of the unresolved border area.”
Chaiyakam added that the situation at the temple “is not growing tense.”
Preah Vihear Provincial Deputy Governor Long Sovann said that the Thai soldiers did enter Cambodian territory and that they were armed.
“They came up to the pagoda with weapons in their hand and we tried to tell them to turn back,” Long Sovann said.
RCAF provincial chief Som Bopharath said by telephone that the standoff with the Thai troops ended at around 2:00 pm when the three arrested Thais were released to the Thai military and escorted back to Thailand.
“We did not fire at each other. We were waiting for the order from the high officer,” Som Bopharath said.
As they were returning to Thai territory, one Thai soldier lost his leg after stepping on a landmine, Chaiyakam said.
Foreign embassies based in Phnom Penh were caught by surprise by the border standoff.
Representatives at the Canadian, Vietnamese, French, Chinese and German Embassies said they had no information on what was going on at the border.
“We’ve heard the rumors about Thai troops on the border near Preah Vihear but have yet to receive independent confirmation,” US Embassy spokesman John Johnson wrote by email Tuesday evening.
Reported as an incursion by Thai troops into Cambodia, the event made headlines worldwide, with the British Broadcasting Corp televising updates about the incident throughout Tuesday.
Late Tuesday night, The Bangkok Post and Channel News Asia also reported that 17 Thai troops caught in the area of the temple were to be detained overnight, citing the source of the information to Khieu Kanharith.
However, contacted to comment on the reports, Khieu Kanharith denied that he had said anything about Thai soldiers being detained by RCAF forces. “I never said this,” he said by phone.
Tensions have risen considerably in Thailand since Cambodia’s success in listing temple as a world heritage site on July 7.
One group of Thai protestors has threatened to erect a “Thai tradition house” on the Thai side of the border gate at Preah Vihear, while another group threatened to storm the temple to express their anger over Cambodia’s successful listing, Thai newspaper The Nation reported last week.
Another 200 Thais gathered near the temple on Saturday-part of a Buddhist group calling themselves Dharmayatra-waving Thai flags and blasting admonishments through a loud speaker claiming the temple belonged to Thailand.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Tuesday that Bangkok and Phnom Penh are far from resolving the disputed area around the temple.
“According to the international map, that land should belong to Cambodia,” he said, referring to the 1962 decision by the International Court of Justice that found the temple situated in Cambodian territory according to a border treaty signed in 1904 between Thailand and France.
“Thailand thinks it is their land. We feel it is our land,” he added.
(Stephen Kurczy, Eang Mengleng, Fergal Quinn, Saing Soenthrith)