>Thais living on Cambodia border villages brace for clashes

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Thai soldiers gather along a road leading to a pagoda close to Preah Vihear temple. Diplomatic efforts have failed to end a week-long military standoff between Cambodia and Thailand over a border dispute which is raising tensions in the region, officials said Tuesday.

(AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy)

By Sukree Sukplang,
Reuters
Thursday, July 24, 2008

KHAO PRA VIHARN, Thailand — Thais living along the border with Cambodia began evacuation and weapon

drills on Wednesday, fearing a land dispute might escalate into violence after talks failed this week.

In villages near the disputed Preah Vihear temple, where hundreds of Thai and Cambodian troops faced off for a ninth day on Wednesday, workers dug holes for new bomb shelters.

They also renovated old bunkers dating back to the 1980s, when stray shells often landed during fighting between Khmer Rouge guerrillas and Cambodian government troops.

“We have nowhere to move to and we don’t want Cambodian infiltrators,” 79-year-old guard Mee Kaewsanga told Reuters, cradling a five-year-old pump-action shotgun.

At the heart of the dispute is a 4.6 sq km (1.8 sq mile) area around the temple, which sits on a jungle-clad escarpment that forms a natural boundary and is claimed by both nations.

The build-up of troops and heavy artillery on both sides of the border has worried neighboring countries and the United Nations, which Cambodia has appealed to for help.

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 the worst.

Authorities have begun arming volunteers with shotguns and training villagers how to defend against potential invaders.

“We hope there won’t be any violence, but we can’t be complacent,” Prasert Aramsriworapong, an official in the border town of Kantaralak, told Reuters.

In Bangkok, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said he believed tensions would ease after Sunday’s general election in Cambodia.

“After the elections, they will soften their stance and talks will be easier,” the pugnacious Thai leader said in Bangkok.

“Everything has been done for the July 27 poll and I need to keep quiet so as not to discredit Prime Minister Hun Sen.”

The temple dispute has whipped up nationalist fervor in Phnom Penh, where leaflets and mobile phone text messages appeared on Wednesday calling for a boycott of Thai goods.

Politicians have also denounced the “Thai invaders” at campaign rallies, reviving memories of the anger whipped up over historical claims to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple in 2003, when a mob torched the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.

But analysts say Thai politics are probably more to blame for the dispute over the temple, which an international court awarded to Cambodia in 1962. The ruling still rankles with many Thais.

Preah Vihear’s listing as a World Heritage site this month inspired pride and joy in Cambodia, but triggered political uproar in Thailand.

Bangkok’s initial support for the heritage listing has been used by anti-government groups to stoke nationalist passions in Thailand and fuel street protests against Samak.

Groups opposed to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, accuse Samak’s government of selling Thailand’s heritage to support Thaksin’s business interests in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh and Thaksin denied the charge, but the controversy forced Thailand’s foreign minister to resign this month.

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