Thai troops continued to mass on Cambodian-claimed soil near Preah Vihear temple Wednesday, with their numbers reaching more than 200, Cambodian officials said.
Thai officials Wednesday said they were unaware of any significant troop buildup, but the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry did release a statement Wednesday evening claiming that some Thai forces had entered the area on a demining mission.
At a press conference Wednesday morning, Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the Thai troop level at a pagoda near the temple reached 170 on Tuesday and had increased to 200 overnight, with 380 Cambodian troops surrounding them.
Khieu Kanharith said the Thai Cabinet had requested a high-level meeting at a yet-to-be-determined time and place to negotiate an end to Thailand’s troop presence at the pagoda.
However, until the two countries meet, Khieu Kanharith said, he did not know when, how, or if the Thai troops would leave the pagoda.
“We hope that we can settle this problem soon,” he said. “The sooner the better.”
He said he did not know who sent the Thai troops to the pagoda, but added that their presence will not impede Cambodia’s access to Preah Vihear temple.
The spat began early Tuesday morning after three Thais – a monk, a nun and a layman – jumped the entrance to the temple, which Cambodia locked July 23 after an initial wave of Thai demonstrators rallied near the temple.
While Cambodian authorities detained and fingerprinted the three Thais, 50 armed Thai troops trekked around the locked gate to a Cambodian-made Buddhist pagoda within 200 meters of Preah Vihear temple to negotiate their release.
The three Thais were released to the Thai forces by 2 pm Tuesday, though the Thai troops levels continued increasing to 170 by 5 pm, according to Khieu Kanharith.
“First, they intervened for the release of the monk [and two other Thais], but we think Thailand might have another idea. I am saying the military, I am not talking of the government, because previously the Thais requested us to control the disputed area together,” Khieu Kanharith said.
The Thai troops at the pagoda are not being held or restrained from leaving, Khieu Kanharith said, dispelling previous reports that 17 Thai troops were held overnight.
“This is not a military standoff,” he said, adding that both Thai and Cambodian troops slept in the pagoda overnight and are mingling peacefully.
According to Thailand’s map of the disputed border area, the pagoda is within Thai territory, whereas according to Cambodia’s map, which the International Court of Justice used in 1962 to rule that Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia, the pagoda is within Cambodia.
Khieu Kanharith said that the Thai troop presence was not an invasion of Cambodian sovereignty but, rather, a “misunderstanding”.
He added that Prime Minister Hun Sen met Wednesday morning with senior officials to discuss the issue.
“According to Samdech Prime Minister’s order, first, we don’t use army force,” Khieu Kanharith said. “Please, people either in Phnom Penh or anywhere, be calm. We ultimately don’t use army force unless we are under attack.”
“We will win in the legal way and we also win in a diplomatic way, so we should not use army force,” he said.
By 5 pm Wednesday the number of Thai troops had reached more than 300 with more on the way, Preah Vihear Deputy Provincial Governor Long Sovann said by telephone. The Thai troops wore “modern weapons” and rifles, he said.
Cambodia’s description of events starkly differed from the scenario put forward by Thai authorities.
The Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was unaware of more than “a few” “unarmed” Thai paramilitaries crossing into the disputed area Tuesday or Wednesday.
“A Thai paramilitary ranger stepped on a landmine, resulting in a loss of his right leg, during an operation along the Thai-Cambodian border near the Preah Vihear Temple on 15 July 2008,” said a statement posted on the ministry’s Web site Wednesday evening.
Concerned that more landmines could remain in the area and obligated under the 1997 Ottawa Convention to destroy all anti-personnel mines under Thailand’s jurisdiction or control, “the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters has dispatched a demining team into the area,” the statement said.
In addition, “The Royal Thai Armed Forces and its Cambodian counterpart have agreed to convene a special session of the General Border Committee (GBC) on 21 July 2008 in Sa Kaew Province, so that both sides can discuss issues together in a spirit of neighborliness,” the statement continued.
Despite the claim in the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry statement that the demining mission was in response to the wounding of a Thai ranger, an official with that ministry said by telephone from Bangkok that Thailand had planned the demining mission months ago in coordination with Cambodia.
The Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry was unaware of an extensive build-up of Thai paramilitary and any recent movements of non-demining personnel were ordered by local-level Thai authorities without the ministry’s consultation, said the official, who requested anonymity.
“We are trying to get information from the military, and they say no such thing happened,” the official said.
“When we cross into this disputed area, I think there is no need to request permission. If you request permission, if means that the area does not belong to you,” the official added.
Thai Major General Witoon Thisayabutr, chief of the Royal Thai Army’s Thai-Cambodia Cooperation Office, said by telephone Wednesday that the situation is normal at the border and there is no unusual troop buildup.
“It’s nothing serious,” he said.
Cambodian authorities said Wednesday evening they had not heard of any planned Thai demining missions near Preah Vihear temple and that the buildup of troops was not normal.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Sin Bunthoeun said the ministry was unaware of any Thai demining operations near Preah Vihear temple. Thai troops, moreover, would need to ask for permission before entering the Cambodian pagoda, he said.
Cambodian Mine Action Committee officials also said Wednesday evening that Thailand had not consulted with them before sending deminers into the Cambodian-claimed territory.
“There is no need to send a demining mission to clear the pagoda. If they want to do that, they would have to have some kind of permission,” said CMAC Deputy Director-General Heng Ratana.
According to CMAC Director-General Khem Sophoan, the presence of Thai troops is actually impeding CMAC from conducting its mine-clearance missions around the temple, as the 30 CMAC officers normally stationed there were removed Tuesday for fears over their safety.
Khem Sophoan added that Thai deminers had begun working near the pagoda Wednesday afternoon, after the Thai troop buildup and without coordination with Cambodia, in order to clear a path from Thailand to the pagoda with a demining machine.
Many of the 900 villagers who live at the temple’s steps near the border gate have fled to the top of the temple.
“I went from the village to the temple because I was concerned when I saw many troops at my village,” one villager said by telephone Wednesday, on condition of anonymity.
On the opposite side of the mountain, residents in Kantuot village, which lies at the start of the winding road leading up to the temple from the Cambodian side, are moving their families and businesses out of the area.
Villager Kuy Sopheat, 49, told reporters Wednesday evening that he was taking his wife and belongs to Siem Reap and that his son had already cleared out to Phnom Penh.
“I don’t feel safe because the Thai side is building up its soldiers as well as the Cambodian side,” he said.
(Reporting in Phnom Penh by Stephen Kurczy, Prak Chan Thul and Eang Mengleng. Additional reporting from Preah Vihear temple by Kevin Doyle and Yun Samean)