>Thailand, Cambodia dig in on border dispute

>Cambodian soldiers stationed near the Preah Vihear temple.

Cambodia says Thai soldiers retreated Tuesday in response to an ultimatum, but Thailand reports sending reinforcements to the disputed region.

Thai troops reportedly retreated Tuesday from a disputed border region in response to an ultimatum issued by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen.

On Monday, Mr. Hun had warned that Cambodian forces would turn the contested border strip near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple into a “death zone” if Thai troops did not retreat within 24 hours. But analysts argue that the Thai-Cambodian standoff at the site of the ancient Hindu temple will receive less attention from the Thai government than the ongoing political upheaval in Bangkok.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Thai troops retreated from the contested area ahead of a noon deadline set by Sen.

Cambodian army commander Brig. Gen. Yim Pim

says all Thai troops have retreated and are about half a mile (1 kilometer) from the contested territory.

“The tense situation has now eased,” Yim Pim

told the Associated Press.

But Reuters reports that more Thai troops were sent to the border region on Tuesday.

Eastern Region Commander Vibulsak Neepan said troops from both sides had retreated slightly but were facing off about 100 metres apart and Bangkok was sending in reinforcements in case the dispute escalated.

“The situation is quite tense at the front line,” Lieutenant-General Vibulsak told Channel 3 television.

“We have mobilised more troops and heavy artillery to the area, just enough to resist and retaliate.”

According to The Nation, a Thai daily, Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat suggested that a troop withdrawal is impossible and called a meeting to discuss the Cambodian threat.

Somchai said commander in chiefs are meeting to look into details and information of the matters.

He reiterated that it is not possible for the Thai troops to withdraw from the area. “It is like you are asked to retreat from your own house,” he said.

Cambodia’s ultimatum to Thailand came after a meeting Monday in Phnom Penh between Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat and his Cambodian counterpart, Hor Namhong, to discuss the border controversy. According to the AP, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry initially proposed more negotiations with Thailand to resolve the matter peacefully.

Given the tone of the encounter between the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers, the Cambodian ultimatum, issued on Monday, took the Thai authorities by surprise, reports The Nation.

Somchai quoted Sompong as saying that he was surprised that Hun Sen made such a threat after the meeting. “During the meeting, Prime Minister Hun Sen seemed to have no problems on the matters. It was surprising that he came out of the meeting room to say that,” Sompong said.

Sompong told the meeting in Phnom Penh that Thailand will not have any problem to withdraw if Cambodia did the same to avoid any confrontation.

According to Reuters, tensions and troop presence along the contested Thai-Cambodian border have been escalating this month after soldiers on both sides were wounded during clashes on Oct. 3.

[Two] Thai soldiers lost legs earlier this month the day after a brief exchange of fire in which soldiers from both sides were wounded.

Cambodian Deputy Defence Minister General Neang Phat said more troops were heading to the area to oppose up to 500 Thai soldiers who had crossed the border.

“We are building up our troops at the border in response to Thailand but I cannot reveal the number,” he told reporters.

Hun Sen said 84 Thai soldiers were “camping” on Cambodian soil about 30 metres away from his own forces.

The conflict first came to a head in July, when hundreds of Thai and Cambodian troops mobilized at Preah Vihear after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the temple a World Heritage Site for Cambodia. The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time that the border dispute had been stoked to further domestic political goals in both countries. In Thailand, opponents of former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who was ousted in September, accused the government of surrendering sovereignty by ceding the ancient temple to Cambodia.

Now, a sustained opposition campaign against Thailand’s ruling party may prevent the border dispute from taking center stage in Bangkok.

“Since late August, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a royalist group that seeks to overhaul democracy in Thailand, has occupied the government’s executive offices” and called for its removal, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Last week, the newly elected yet embattled Somchai canceled a planned visit to Cambodia with little notice, reports Deutsche Presse-Agentur. He was due to arrive in Phnom Penh on Monday to discuss the border dispute.

According to an analyst interviewed by The Phnom Penh Post, an independent Cambodian newspaper, Thailand’s domestic political turmoil will impede a peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the border conflict.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst based at Bangkok’s Chulalangkorn University, told the Post that the situation in Thailand, which has seen activists of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) take to the streets in an attempt to force Somchai’s resignation, will only undermine the border negotiations.

“The turmoil and confrontation in Bangkok are going to adversely affect Prime Minister Somchai’s bargaining position,” he said. “He is essentially being overthrown by the PAD, and he will not have the domestic support needed to negotiate the issue.”

Singapore’s foreign ministry has urged Thailand and Cambodia to “resolve the issue through negotiations without resorting to force,” reports the BBC.

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