(AFP/File/Tang Chhin Sothy)
KHAO PRA VIHARN, Thailand, July 23 (Reuters) – Thais living along the border with Cambodia began evacuation and weapon drills on Wednesday, fearing clashes between troops of the two countries if talks to resolve a land dispute fail.
But Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said tension would ease after a general election in Cambodia on Sunday, playing down Phnom Penh’s diplomatic offensive and its plea for United Nations mediation.
“After the elections, they will soften their stance and talks will be easier,” Samak told reporters in Bangkok, two days after talks between senior defence officials to end the dispute failed.
“Everything has been done for the July 27 poll and I need to keep quiet so as not to discredit Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Samak said.
At the heart of the dispute is the Preah Vihear temple, perched on a disputed border where troops faced off for a ninth day on Wednesday.
Similar nationalist fervour was whipped up over historical claims to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple in 2003, when a mob torched the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.
The trigger for the latest fracas was Preah Vihear’s listing as a World Heritage site this month, a move that inspired pride in Cambodia but uproar in Thailand.
Local Thai authorities near the temple braced for the worst, arming defence volunteers with shotguns and giving people training on how to guard their villages if violence erupted.
“We hope there won’t be any violence, but we can’t be complacent,” said Prasert Aramsriworapong, head of the town hall in Kantaralak, near where the 900-year-old temple is located. “If it does happen, people won’t panic.”
If fighting erupted, up to 4,000 villagers living along the border might have to be evacuated, he said.
Villagers living near the temple, known in Thai as Khao Pra Viharn, have started renovating bunkers used in the 1980s to shelter from stray shells from fighting between Khmer Rouge guerrillas and Cambodian government troops.
“We have nowhere to move to and we don’t want Cambodian infiltrators,” said 79-year-old village guard Mee Kaewsanga.
The 11th century Preah Vihear complex, sitting on a remote and heavily landmined escarpment on the border between the two countries, has been a source of tension for decades.
Although easily accessible only from Thailand, it was bestowed to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice in the Hague, a ruling that still rankles with Thais.
Bangkok’s initial support for the heritage site listing has been used by anti-government groups to stoke nationalist fervour in Thailand and fuel street protests.
Groups opposed to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a military coup in 2006, have accused the pro-Thaksin government of selling out Thailand’s heritage to support his business interests in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh and Thaksin have denied the charge, but the controversy forced Thailand’s foreign minister to resign.
Cambodia’s diplomatic offensive over the ancient temple dispute was ultimately meant to gain more land from Thailand, Don Pramudwinai, Thai ambassador to the U.N., told a Bangkok radio.
“The issue has escalated beyond Preah Vihear, which already belongs to them,” Don told Business Radio from New York.
Don said Phnom Penh was trying to get the international community to recognise a French map dating from the time when it was a French colony, which would give it several areas Thailand claims as its territory.
“Sometimes, our sincere friendship had prompted us to overlook our neighbour’s ultimate motive. In this case, they are using guerrilla tactics to ambush us,” he said.
(Writing by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)