War “Imminent” over a Disputed Cambodian Temple

Cambodia is appealing for the United Nations to intervene in the “volatile and tense” standoff over a disputed Buddhist temple on the Thailand-Cambodian border after Thailand refused to withdraw troops and rejected offers of mediation, Cambodian officials say.

The UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, is “closely following the situation” and is “concerned about the current escalation of tensions between the two countries, including the buildup of troops” according to an official UN statement. Ban called for restraint, urging a diplomatic solution.

Both sides have a considerable interest in fanning the flames of a long-running cultural dispute in a region where border disputes have been largely solved—unless political considerations reawaken them. Cambodia is in the throes of preparing for an election on Sunday, with otherwise disheartened opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen attacking him for his handling of the situation, not to mention his new emphasis on the Cambodian ownership of the 10th century temple, an architectural jewel.

In the meantime, in Bangkok, Thailand’s government, led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, has been beleaguered for months by protesters demanding his ouster. Sovereignty of the Preah Vihear Temple has become a Thai hobbyhorse to power.

Addressing international diplomats, Cambodian VIPs and media Wednesday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Cambodian attempts to avert the crisis – including urging the withdrawal of troops on both sides of the disputed area, relocating border residents and a market further inside Cambodian territory and to setting up an Asean ministerial group to help resolve the standoff – have all been rejected by Thailand.

“In spite of our maximum restraint, in spite of our spirit of compromise, we have not received a positive response from the other side,” he said. The appeal to the UN was a last resort, Hor Namhong stressed, adding that the situation leaves Cambodia with only two choices: accept Thai occupation of Cambodian territory or to appeal to the UN Security Council. As to the first option, “who can accept that?” he asked.

Thailand seems to be preparing for a fight, he continued, with “thousands of troops, tanks and artillery” massing close to the border. “In the face of an imminent state of war, and a very serious threat to our independence and territorial integrity, we had the obligation to resort to the UN Security Council,” the minister said, adding that a request for an urgent meeting had been submitted Monday. He hoped the Security Council would convene to discuss the temple, known as Preah Viheah, early next week.

The US Ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph Mussomeli, yesterday expressed similar sentiments. “We have suggested to both sides that troops not be augmented. When you have that many young men, with that many weapons, in that close proximity, there’s always a danger of violence,” he told reporters. “We remain hopeful that this thing will be resolved bilaterally. It would be better it this could be resolved in Asean.”

During his address, Hor, the foreign minister, repeatedly referred to Thailand’s obligations under international law and criticized their lack of officially endorsed maps. Cambodia is using maps agreed by the French government and Thailand (then known as Siam) in 1908 and subsequently endorsed by the International Court of Justice in 1962, he said, which that show the temple as being 700 meters inside Cambodian territory.

In contrast, “Thailand drew their own map,” he noted.

Official demarcation was further discussed by Pen Ngoeun, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, at another press conference yesterday afternoon. Maps based on the 1908 French-Siamese agreement and the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling were passed out, the disputed temple shown clearly inside the Cambodian border with a red dot.

Thai King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, signed off the 1908 agreement, noted Information Minister Khieu Kanharith. The Thais later reneged on the deal, he added, spurring then-King Norodom Sihanouk to bring the dispute before the International Court of Justice in 1962.

The situation at Preah Vihear remains tense.Cambodian soldiers stationed in the disputed area have orders to fire “in self-defense only,” Khieu Kanharith said. However, he warned that “Cambodia is a sovereign state and we need to defend our country.”