REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA)
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodia accused Thailand on Thursday of sending more troops to their joint border as a smoldering dispute over a 900-year-old temple showed no signs of easing.
“Thailand has continued to increase its military build-up,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told a news conference in Phnom Penh, labeling Bangkok the aggressor in a spat that has sparked fears of a military clash.
“The situation is not easing,” Kanharith said, adding that Cambodia had 800 soldiers along the border compared with around 3,000 Thai troops.
The Thai Foreign Ministry said Bangkok had only 400 men facing as many as 1,700 Cambodian soldiers. Both sides have moved artillery into the area, occupied by remnants of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge guerrilla army in the 1980s and 1990s.
At the heart of the dispute is a 1.8 square mile stretch of scrubland around the Preah Vihear temple on a jungle-clad escarpment that forms a natural boundary between the southeast Asian countries.
The temple itself is claimed by both countries but was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a ruling that has rankled in Thailand ever since.
France and Vietnam said on Wednesday the United Nations Security Council would hold a special meeting in response to a Cambodian request for it to take up the issue, although it was not clear if it would lead to formal Council involvement.
Thailand said it wanted the issue to be resolved on a bilateral basis, and it played down Phnom Penh’s claims of rising tensions ahead of a general election on Sunday in Cambodia, where nationalism is a frequently played political card.
“It is a peaceful military stand-off. It is like a picnic. They chat together and lunch together,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat told Reuters in Bangkok.
Thailand says it has the support of China, Russia, the United States, Vietnam and Indonesia against the need for Security Council intervention.
Even if it did step into the imbroglio, it is not clear what the U.N. could do other than issue a statement telling Bangkok and Phnom Penh to sort out the kafuffle.
While there have been no major incidents at the temple so far, Thai border villages that are home to some 4,000 people are braced for conflict.
Analysts say domestic Thai politics are mainly to blame for the eruption of the dispute, which stems from Cambodia’s successful bid to have the ruins listed as a World Heritage site, a source of pride and joy in Cambodia and uproar in Thailand.
Bangkok’s initial support for the heritage listing was seized on by anti-government groups who whipped up a nationalist fervor in their attempt to unseat the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. His foreign minister resigned over the issue.
(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan)
(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)