PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian general said a border standoff between his soldiers and Thai troops came close to a shoot-out overnight as the confrontation over disputed territory surrounding an ancient temple entered its fourth day Friday.
The dispute is centered around Cambodia’s 11th century Hindu temple Preah Vihear and came to a head last week when UNESCO approved Cambodia’s application for World Heritage Site status for the site. Thai activists fear the new status will undermine Thailand’s claim to nearby land.
Thai soldiers entered the surrounding area on Tuesday, staking out positions at a Buddhist temple compound nearby. However, some resident Cambodian monks remained and Cambodian soldiers have continued to visit them even after the Thais arrived.
A large group of Cambodian troops came to the compound Thursday planning to spend the night, and the two sides raised their rifles at each other when the Thais moved to evict them in an incident lasting about 10 minutes before the Cambodians departed, Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said.
“We exercised patience to prevent weapons from being fired,” he said.
The standoff is the latest in a long-standing conflict over frontier territory that has never been fully demarcated. Both countries have agreed to hold defense minister talks next Monday in Thailand to avoid military action.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote a letter to Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on Thursday saying that relations have been “worsening” since Thai troops “encroached on our territory” on Tuesday, and asked Samak to pull them back.
Both countries have massed troops in the area.
“The deteriorating situation is very bad for the relations between our two countries,” Hun Sen wrote.
The Thai government sent troops to the area after anti-government demonstrators made an issue of the disputed territory near the temple, decrying the government’s endorsement of Cambodia’s UNESCO application.
To some extent, the demonstrators appear to be playing to nationalist sentiment to gain support for their larger goal of unseating Samak, whom they accuse of being a proxy for toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The border standoff began after three of the protesters crossed into Cambodia on Tuesday to visit the temple and were briefly detained.
Soon afterward, Thai troops deployed to the border. The Thai army has been tightlipped about reasons behind the troop movements.
The Thai Foreign Ministry has said the troops are ensuring that any protests there are done in an “orderly manner,” and that the troops are protecting Thai sovereignty, though it was unclear how it has been threatened.
About 400 Thai troops are in the area, facing about twice as many Cambodians, Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said Thursday.
Thursday night’s incident, the first time the two sides pointed weapons at each other, occurred after 61 monks along with 13 nuns and lay people came to the Buddhist pagoda some 220 yards west of the Preah Vihear complex to celebrate the start of Buddhist Lent.
Chea Keo said about 50 Cambodian troops entered the pagoda hoping to stay the night to provide security for the monks and nuns, but the Thai soldiers moved to evict them, prompting the gun-pointing.
The only clashes so far have been between Thai protesters and Thai villagers who resent their lands becoming ground-zero for a political battle.
Samak has condemned the Thai protesters for “trying to ignite a conflict.” But he has not said anything about why the troops moved to the border.
Associated Press writers Sutin Wannabovorn and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, and Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh contributed to this report.