Thai soldiers arrested a Cambodian man yesterday just across the Thai border near Preah Vihear temple on allegations of espionage, officials said.
Ung Kimthai, 43, along with Vietnamese national Viang Povyoeng, 36, were arrested Tuesday afternoon and accused of spying and drug use, according to General Dy Phan, director of the northwest border commission office. Gen Phan said the men were carrying legal passports and passed both border checkpoints without incident before their arrest.
“They were checked by the Khmer side and by the Thai side, then they were arrested by a black [uniformed] solider,” said Gen Phan. “I guarantee they were just normal villagers, despite the accusations of espionage.”
Consular officers are now meeting with the men to investigate the matter, he added.
Thai news agency MCOT reported yesterday that a third man, Thai national Suchart Muhammad, was also involved in the case. All three were nabbed in Si Sa Ket province’s Kantharalak district while allegedly searching for military bases and bunkers, MCOT said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan called the accusations of spying groundless for a number of reasons.
“He was wrongly accused. There is no basis for charges of spying. First, the men were arrested inside the city, not in an operational area…. Also, they found methamphetamines on them. They were carrying passports. If they were spies, why would they carry passports? If they were military, they wouldn’t be carrying drugs.”
Mr Siphan said the arrests were a way for Thailand to strengthen its claim to disputed land near the temple.
“Thailand claims they’re spies to aggravate the situation, to build the case against Cambodia as the provocateurs. But we just want to protect and care for what is ours.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now investigating the matter, said spokesman Koy Koung.
“We completely deny the charges made by the Thai side—he is an ordinary citizen just going in and out for work only. No Cambodians are going in for espionage; this is a complete fabrication constructed by the Thai side,” he said.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn declined yesterday to discuss the details of the case, saying only that it was under investigation.
Lieutenant General Chhum Socheat, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said the military was in the midst of an investigation expected to wrap up today, but would not elaborate on the findings thus far.
Though Lt Gen Socheat said he would not speculate on any possible fallout from the incident, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said yesterday it represented an escalation of hostilities on Cambodia’s part and affirmed Thailand’s claim to the territory surrounding the temple.
“We will inform Cambodia that these moves are unacceptable,” Abhisit was quoted as saying by MCOT.
“We will inform the international community, particularly the Unesco World Heritage Committee, that the incident shows the ill intention of Cambodia. The international community will see that Cambodia’s claim that Thailand invaded its territory is not true.”