Monday, July 28, 2008

Cambodia, Thailand open talks on border standoff

Posted: 28 July 2008 1148 hrs

Cambodian soldiers gather at a pagoda near the Preah Vihear temple

SIEM REAP, Cambodia : Foreign ministers from Cambodia and Thailand opened a new round of talks Monday on a nearly two-week military standoff over an ancient temple that has raised tensions in the region. Thousands of soldiers have deployed since July 15 to a small patch of land around the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, which sits on a mountaintop overlooking the Cambodian jungle. The ruins of the Khmer temple belong to Cambodia, but the most practical entrance begins at the foot of a mountain in Thailand, and both sides claim some of the surrounding territory. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his newly appointed Thai counterpart Tej Bunnag began the talks with a handful of top military officials from both countries, Thai and Cambodian officials said. Neither country expects a resolution to the conflict Monday, but they hope to lay out a plan for tackling unresolved issues on the border. "The foreign ministers will raise only their main policies, but issues regarding the border and troops need to be discussed in more detail and that will require work by different committees," Cambodia's government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP. "But meeting face to face is better than not meeting each other," he added. Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat told reporters Thailand was committed to resolving the crisis through negotiations. "We will talk about all the problems. We will try to find solutions as best we can," Tharit said as the talks got underway. "This is a complicated issue but with the long relationship between the two neighbouring countries, the two can find a solution to solve this problem." The negotiations took place at an upmarket hotel in the Cambodian tourist town of Siem Reap, whose name translates as "Thailand defeated," a legacy of ancient conflicts between the neighbours. Now the town is a hub of Thai investment in Cambodia, with Thailand's well-developed tourism industry tapping into the international appeal of the nearby Angkor Wat ruins. Nationalist tensions last erupted in 2003 in a controversy over Angkor Wat, after a Thai actress implied the ruins belonged to Thailand. The remarks sparked a night of riots in which Bangkok's embassy and several Thai-owned businesses were burned and looted in Phnom Penh. The latest dispute has again fueled nationalist passions in both countries. Concerns over Preah Vihear helped boost Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's standing in general elections Sunday, in which his party claimed a thumping victory. But while Hun Sen's re-election was never really in doubt, the stakes are considerably higher for Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whose government is the target of royalist protests and a barrage of legal challenges that threaten to bring down his administration. Protesters have accused Samak of giving away Thai territory after his government initially agreed to support Cambodia's bid to win UN World Heritage status for Preah Vihear. A court ruled that the deal with Cambodia was unconstitutional, forcing the resignation of then-foreign minister Noppadon Pattama earlier this month. Tej, a career diplomat, was confirmed as the new minister at the weekend. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but surrounding land remains in dispute. Cambodia had asked the UN Security Council to take up the latest conflict over the temple, but suspended its request to allow the current talks to proceed. Both sides have toned down their rhetoric after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced concern about the conflict and called for a peaceful resolution.
-AFP /ls

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