Friday, August 1, 2008;
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (Reuters) – The wife of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen led Buddhist monks and soldiers in prayers at a 900-year-old Hindu border temple on Friday amid a three-week military stand-off with Thailand.
With Thai troops and artillery dug in only meters away, Bun Rany thanked the soldiers, mostly battle-hardened ex-Khmer Rouge guerrillas, for resisting what Cambodia says is Thai encroachment on a disputed patch of land next to the ruins.
“The first lady called on the ancestral spirits to defend Preah Vihear and chase away the enemy,” Min Khin, chairman of the Southeast Asian nation’s Festival Committee, told reporters after the ceremony, shrouded in early morning mist.
Preah Vihear sits on top of a jungle-clad escarpment that forms a natural boundary between Thailand and Cambodia, and has been a bone of contention between the two countries for decades.
The International Court of Justice in the Hague awarded the site to Cambodia in 1962, a ruling that has rankled in Thailand ever since, although it did not rule on ownership of the 1.8 square miles of scrub at the centre of the latest spat.
The trigger for the latest row came from Bangkok’s backing of Cambodia’s bid to have the temple listed as a World Heritage site, support that was seized on by nationalist street protesters bent on overthrowing the Thai government.
With a general election campaign underway in Cambodia at the time, it quickly escalated into a serious confrontation, with hundreds of troops and artillery sent to both sides of the border. In some places, the two sides are only a few yards apart.
Both foreign ministers vowed on Monday to resolve the stand-off peacefully and pull back troops, although nothing has changed on the ground, with Bangkok and Phnom Penh reluctant to redeploy in case they are painted as weak.
Bun Rany’s high-profile visit, flying in by helicopter and a heavily armed security detail, suggests her husband, a wily former Khmer Rouge soldier who won a landslide victory in Sunday’s election, is in no mood to compromise.
A group claiming Preah Vihear for Thailand described the ceremony as a black-magic ritual meant to bring bad luck, one newspaper reported.
Preah Vihear is not the only temple to have hit relations between the two countries.
In 2003, a nationalist mob torched the Thai embassy and several Thai businesses in Phnom Penh after erroneously reported comments from a Thai soap opera star that Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat actually belonged to Thailand.
(Additional reporting by Ek Madra in Phnom Penh and Nopporn Wong-Anan in Bangkok; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by David Fogarty)