PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian and Thai troops came close to a shoot-out in a disputed border region as the confrontation over land surrounding an ancient temple entered its fourth day, a Cambodian general said Friday.
The standoff is the latest escalation in a long-standing conflict over land that surrounds Preah Vihear temple, which is similar in style to the more famous Angkor Wat in northeastern Cambodia.
Thai soldiers entered the surrounding area Tuesday, staking out positions at a nearby Buddhist temple compound.
On Thursday night, 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.
The Cambodian monks must remain on the temple grounds during the three-month period. The age-old practice is traditionally to prevent them from trampling new plants and insects.
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, Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said.
Chea Keo said the incident lasted about 10 minutes before the Cambodians departed.
“We exercised patience to prevent weapons from being fired,” he said.
The Thai army spokeswoman Col. Sirichan Ngathong said she was “not aware of any incident where the two troops pointed guns at one another.” She said she could not comment further because she has not been briefed on the issue.
“But the situation is stable. They (the troops) have been told to avoid any confrontration,” she said.
The land dispute 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.
The standoff is the latest in a long-standing conflict over frontier territory that has never been fully demarcated.
The U.S. Embassy, in an e-mail Friday to its citizens living and traveling in Thailand, recommended that Americans should not travel to the area until the standoff is resolved.
To avoid military action, both countries have agreed to hold defense minister talks next Monday in Thailand.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote a letter to Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on Thursday saying relations have been “worsening” since Thai troops “encroached on our territory,” and asked Samak to pull them back.
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, the Cambodian general said.
Associated Press writers Sutin Wannabovorn and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, and Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh contributed to this report.