Thailand, Cambodia Reach Truce on Observers

Defense ministers may have date for troop withdrawal by next month

The defense ministers of Thai­land and Cambodia failed to ag­ree on a timeframe for withdrawing their troops from hotly disputed land around Preah Vihear temple after a full-day meeting in Phnom Penh yesterday, but managed a compromise on the thorny issue of observers.

It moves the two countries a small step closer to complying with a July 18 order from the In­ter­national Court of Justice (ICJ) that they withdraw from a provisional demilitarized zone it drew around the disputed area—the scene of numerous brief but dead­ly clashes over the past three years—immediately.

Emerging from their room at the Sofitel Hotel six hours behind schedule, Defense Minister Gen­eral Tea Banh and his Thai counterpart, Yutthasak Sasiprapa, made a joint announcement to a gaggle of Thai and Cambodian journalists.

Instead of announcing a much-anticipated plan for withdrawal, though, Gen. Banh said the pair had agreed instead to set up a “joint working group” that would continue discussing how to im­plement the court’s order.

He said the group would work toward a deal for a full withdrawal “under the observations of the Joint Observer Team, comprising the Cambodian, Thai and Indo­nesian observers.”

He said the group would meet “immediately” and convene in Thailand first, but offered no ex­act date.

So while an ultimate settlement continued to elude the pair, the two defense ministers appeared to at least meet each other half way on the matter of the observers.

Since the last round of fighting around the border-hugging temple in February, Cambodia has insisted that Indonesia—which was chair of Asean at the time—send a team of observers to the area to monitor a tense cease-fire. Thai­land agreed in principle but stalled on the exact terms and later started insisting that the ob­servers only be allowed in after the troops had left.

By agreeing to withdraw “un­der the observation” of the team, Thai­land appeared to have given ground on the point. At the same time, Cambodia, which had been insisting on a fully independent and impartial observer team, agreed to one “comprising Cam­bodian, Thai and Indonesian observers.”

Gen. Banh, who did most of the talking for the pair, said the working group would also settle on the exact coordinates of the demilitarized zone’s four corners as mapped out by the ICJ and coordinate its demining.

But a date for withdrawal—the heart of the ICJ’s order—re­mained elusive.

The Thai defense minister suggested that Bangkok might agree to a date by next month, pending the Thai Parliament’s approval.

“We have to follow Thailand’s laws,” Gen. Yutthasak said. “Since we have an agreement, it is for the Council of Ministers and the Na­tional Assembly to ratify and im­plement…. We’ll do it quickly next month and determine the date for readjusting the troops.”

If and when the area ever does become demilitarized, it seems unlikely to be completely disarmed. Both sides have some 400 border police on standby to re­place their troops as soon as they leave.

Any withdrawal will not stop either side from continuing to lay claim to the same 4.6 square km at the heart of the dispute, either. At Cambodia’s request, the ICJ is expected to issue a verdict on ownership some time next year

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