While both Cambodian and Thai officials insist the new military tension that rose Wednesday around the Preah Vihear temple has eased up, the incident left a sense of deja vu: As opposition to the government mounts in Bangkok, so does the pressure at the border.
The 4.6 square km of disputed land near the Preah Vihear temple had been quiet for months when, according to Cambodian officials, about 100 Thai soldiers crossed into a previous flash-point zone Wednesday afternoon and were promptly met by Cambodian soldiers. Negotiations ensued and the Thai soldiers pulled back a few hours later.
Meanwhile in Bangkok on Thursday, thousands of “red shirt” opposition supporters marched to Government House, aiming to oust the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his foreign affairs minister, Kasit Piromya.
But the boot was on the other foot in Bangkok late last year when tension at the Preah Vihear temple was also at its highest.
Back then it was the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy that was stirring up nationalistic sentiment—Kasit being among the most vocal—with accusations that the government was giving up the temple to Cambodia. Later, when the government collapsed and the yellow-shirts were voted into power, Kasit’s appointment as the fourth foreign minister to handle the 10-month border dispute was criticized, as opponents thought he had been too virulent in criticizing Cambodia.
Now, apparently unable to please either way, Kasit finds himself accused of being too lenient on Cambodia, in part because he did not stop the construction of a Cambodian road to the temple that the red-shirts say took away 250 meters of Thai territory. Kasit narrowly withstood a censure motion in the Thai Parliament last week.
So it would seem that politics in Bangkok informs Thai policy at the border.
Cambodian officials, irritated by the slow pace of negotiations with Thailand, have on several occasions blamed the pace of border talks on the interference of Thai domestic politics. And Thai observers are attuned to the Cambodia connection as well: An editorial in Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper on Thursday called on the “red shirts” not to politicize the border issue and Preah Vihear; that is, not to use the same methods that had been used against them by the PAD’s “yellow shirts” last year.
“[They] should not repeat this mistake because it would not bring any good to the country, only problems and trouble,” the article said.
The Thai-Cambodian Joint Border Commission will discuss the boundary demarcation on April 6 and 7 in Phnom Penh. Such negotiations have coincided in the past with rhetorical escalations and agitation of the opposing troops.
The message coming Thursday from the Thai military, through deputy spokesman Colonel Wera-chon Sukondhapatipak, was one of reassurance.
“We have a policy that we do not do anything that could be perceived as provocative,” he said by phone from Bangkok. “We want to avoid any misunderstanding.”
“If this is the case, that there is a movement [of troops at Preah Vihear], then it is only a rotation. There is no order to increase troop numbers at the border,” he said.
Thani Thongpakdi, deputy spokesman for the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry, said his country’s troops had been moving within the borders of Thailand. Because the area has yet to be demarcated, both countries occasionally accuse each other of encroaching. Thani also said the reported figure of 100 soldiers was exaggerated.
At the temple, Preah Vihear Authority Secretary-General Hang Soth said vendors and residents living at the market at the base of the temple’s entrance steps had—as they did last year—moved up to the safety of the temple for fear of a showdown with Thai troops.
“They moved to a safe place because they were afraid,” Hang Soth said. And just like last year, the authority is preparing a place for the residents to stay at the temple, he added.