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Monday, July 21, 2008

Thai-Cambodia crisis talks end with no deal

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand (AFP) — Talks between Cambodia and Thailand to resolve a military stand-off on their joint border ended Monday without a solution, defence officials from the two nations said.

After nearly eight hours in closed-door meetings in an eastern Thai town, the two sides agreed only that force must not be used to resolve the nearly week-long crisis over disputed land near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple .

"We both have legal problems of which we have informed our seniors to discuss," said Thai Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit.

"We will both bring back the problems to our governments."

More than 500 Thai and 1,000 Cambodian troops are stationed around a small Buddhist pagoda on disputed land on a mountain slope leading to Preah Vihear, which is owned by Cambodia.
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Temple dispute talks start

Aranyaprathet - Senior Thai and Cambodian defence officials met on Monday to try and end a six-day military standoff near a prized temple on the border, but there was little sign of a swift resolution.

As more than 500 Thai and 1 000 Cambodian troops faced off on disputed land near the ancient Hindu temple, Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh sat down with senior Thai military officials in an eastern Thai border town.

"We believe they will accept our reasonable offers which will ease tension along the border," Thai Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit said before going into the meeting.

He did not expand on Thailand's position, and officials refused to comment as closed-door talks continued into the afternoon in Aranyaprathet district, about 180km south of the disputed land.

Both countries have shown willingness to peacefully diffuse the territorial dispute, which saw weapons briefly drawn last week, and agreed at a regional meeting in Singapore late Sunday to "exert utmost efforts" to reach a deal.

Yet there appears to be little room for diplomatic manoeuvring, with letters exchanged between the country's leaders showing no change in their stances, which have been hardened by political developments in both nations.

Illegal incursion

Tensions flared last week when three Thais tried to enter Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple, and both sides have stationed troops around a small Buddhist pagoda on a mountain slope leading to the 11th century ruins.

In a letter obtained on Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told his Thai counterpart Samak Sundaravej that a map used in a World Court ruling shows the temple "is legally located approximately seven hundred metres inside Cambodian territory".

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but 4.6 square kilometres of land surrounding the Khmer ruins remains in dispute.

Cambodia maintains that Thai troops are trespassing on their territory, and has sent a letter to the United Nations to try and draw attention to what it says is an illegal incursion.

Thailand insists the land around the temple is theirs.

Brigadier Chea Keo, commander of Cambodian forces in the disputed area, said that the deputy commander in chief of the Cambodian army had toured the area around Preah Vihear on Monday.

"Kun Kim just came to visit the troops and told the troops to be patient and keep the work for the government to solve," he said.

Heritage status

On Sunday, Chea Keo said he had "very little hope" in the talks.

Recent tensions between the neighbours began with Cambodia's moves to have Preah Vihear listed as a United Nations World Heritage Site.

UN cultural body Unesco earlier this month finally granted heritage status to the temple perched on a cloud-covered jungle mountaintop, sparking an outcry from nationalist groups in Thailand who are battling Samak's government.

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Asean Ministers Meet to Discuss Thai-Cambodia Tensions, Myanmar

By Shamim Adam

July 21 (Bloomberg) -- Southeast Asian foreign ministers meeting today may focus on diffusing tensions over a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, and will deliver an assessment of humanitarian efforts to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

Thailand and Cambodia have sent more troops to a disputed border region near an 11th century temple called Preah Vihear, according to media reports. Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Singapore were briefed on developments yesterday, and urged the two sides to find ways to ``defuse the situation.''

``The situation has escalated dangerously with troops from both sides faced off on disputed territory near the Preah Vihear temple,'' Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said today. Asean cannot ``stand idly by without damaging its credibility.''

The 10-member bloc will also issue a report on the assessment of conditions in Myanmar areas hit by Cyclone Nargis. The regional group helped persuade Myanmar's junta leaders to allow foreign aid into the country and led humanitarian efforts after the cyclone struck in May.

Asean, which agreed to form a charter last year to make it a rules-based group, has long been criticized by Western nations for failing to press Myanmar to restore democracy and censure the junta for inflicting alleged human rights abuses.

Aung San Suu Kyi

The military, which has ruled the country formerly known as Burma since 1962, extended opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest by one year on May 27. It has kept her confined for 12 of the past 18 years. Her current period of detention began in 2003.

Asean foreign ministers yesterday discussed the issue of Suu Kyi's detention with their Myanmar counterpart Nyan Win, and repeated a call for her, as well as other political detainees, to be released, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said.

Nyan Win told the ministers that Suu Kyi's maximum six- year period of detention will be over in six months, Yeo said yesterday.

``I think that is not an inaccurate inference'' to say that she may be released in half a year, Yeo said.

Asean won't wait for all 10 member nations to ratify the charter before starting on the implementation of some programs, Singapore's Lee said today. At least three countries have yet to agree to ratify the Asean charter.

``The internal processes of member countries are different and some will be more difficult than others,'' Lee said. ``The pace of Asean integration should not be set by its slowest members, or else all will be held back by the problems of a few.''

Legally Binding

The charter is the group's first legally binding document since its formation in 1967. It will retain Asean's long- standing non-interference policy, and members found to be in violation of its rules will be referred to the leaders of the 10 Asean countries for action. The group will still rule by consensus, having rejected proposals to add voting, expulsion or sanctions on its members.

Officials will also talk about ways to tackle the impact of rising food and energy costs on the region's economies, according to a July 8 draft of a communiqué obtained by Bloomberg News that will be released today.

The ministers will discuss rising oil and food prices, ``which pose a serious challenge to our people's welfare as well as our countries' continued economic development,'' the statement said. They will stress ``the importance of international efforts to ensure efficient functioning of market forces, as well as to come up with longer term agricultural solutions.''

Diverse Protesters

Crude oil reached a record $147.27 on July 11, and rice, wheat and palm oil have surged to unprecedented levels this year. That's fueled inflation across Asia and spurred protests against price increases by groups as diverse as Japanese fishermen, Indian truck drivers and Indonesian students. The Asian Development Bank expects inflation in the region to reach a decade high this year.

``While the risk of rapid deterioration in the near term has somewhat abated, we stressed the importance of ensuring sound fiscal and monetary policies,'' the ministers will probably say today, according to the statement.

Southeast Asian nations are seeking ways to improve their competitiveness against neighbors China and India, the world's two fastest-growing major economies. The bloc last year agreed to implement changes to its individual markets to allow the region to be a European Union-modeled economic community, without a common currency, by 2015.

ASEAN includes Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Formed in 1967, it has a combined gross domestic product of over $1.03 trillion and a population of about 570 million.

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Thai-Cambodia conflict may haunt ASEAN meeting

The Jakarta Post, Singapore

For several years, it has been the Myanmar issue that has overshadowed ASEAN meetings, including the leaders' summit here last November. But this time, it will be different.

The Myanmar ruling junta will probably even receive a warmer reception because of its readiness to bow to pressure by ASEAN to open its door to international humanitarian workers to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

When the ASEAN foreign ministers started their five-day annual meeting on Sunday evening, the rising tension between Thailand and Cambodia may have distracted the ministers' attention from their main agenda items, such as the process for setting up the ASEAN Human Rights Body and talks with VIP guests, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has skipped the past few annual meetings.

"This issue (the Thai-Cambodia dispute) has been a major attention-grabber over the past two days. The ministers will want an update on what has been going on.

"The indications are that this is an issue they (the two countries) want to solve bilaterally," said the ASEAN meeting spokesman Andrew Tan.

But the ministers of the 10-member regional group are not likely to get a first-hand briefing from the conflicting parties, because Thailand does not currently have a foreign minister and instead sent its deputy prime minister Sahas Bunditkul.

And according to the official schedule as at Sunday evening, Cambodia has no plans to send its foreign minister, Hor Namhong.

The Foreign Ministry's director general for ASEAN affairs, Dian Triansyah Djani, indicated the foreign ministers would discuss the Thai-Cambodia border dispute. But he also pointed out the problem was not likely to affect the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who is also a former Thai foreign minister, called on both countries to exercise "restraint".

"The ministers may wish to address the issue ... trying to encourage early resolution and maximum restraint in order to avoid any repercussions on the image of the organization," Surin said Saturday.

But the ASEAN foreign ministers will also hear good news that will help to boost its international stature: North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun is scheduled to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). Pyongyang will add to the list of signatory countries, which includes China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia, Pakistan and France. It is also expected the Six-Party Talks will take place here.

On Monday, after concluding their annual meeting, the ASEAN chief diplomats will meet with the High Level Legal Expert Group on the ASEAN Charter. The following day, they will receive the foreign ministers of China, South Korea and Japan. Japan's Masahiko Koumura and South Korea's Yu Myung Hwan are also scheduled to hold bilateral talks to discuss their dispute over a group of islets in the Sea of Japan.

On Wednesday, ASEAN will host bilateral meetings with its dialogue partners, including the European Union and Australia. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be the star of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Her absence from several meetings has annoyed the group's foreign ministers, but as a consolation, the White House recently appointed Scot Marciel as the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN. --Tony Hotland and Kornelius Purba

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Talks fail to end Thai-Cambodia temple row

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand, July 21 (Reuters) - Talks between Thailand and Cambodia failed on Monday to end a military stand-off over an ancient temple on their border, which regional neighbours feared could turn violent.

Hundreds of troops facing each other at the temple for the past week will hold their positions, Thai and Cambodian negotiators said after eight hours of talks.

"The best option is to stay where they are, but avoid using weapons," Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niumpradit told reporters.

Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh said "it is impossible to find a solution at this second", but negotiations would continue at a later date.

The meeting took place in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, 380 km (235 miles) from the 11th century temple awarded to Cambodia by an international court in 1962. That ruling still rankles Thais.

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, that is claimed by both nations.

Cambodia complained to the United Nations Security Council on Friday about Thailand's violation of Cambodia's "sovereignty and territorial integrity", but did not ask the U.N. to intervene.

In a sign of easing tensions, soldiers at the site had agreed on Monday to keep weapons out of the temple itself, Cambodian commander Chea Mon said.

"We do not want any armed troops to disturb Buddhist monks who are praying there," he told Reuters.

NEIGHBOURS URGE RESTRAINT

The stand-off has revived memories of a 2003 spat over Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple complex, which saw a mob set fire to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, and worried neighbours.
The 10-country Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged members Thailand and Cambodia to show "utmost caution and restraint" and offered to help resolve the impasse.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, opening the annual ASEAN meeting in the city state, said the "situation has escalated dangerously" and the group "could not stand idly by without damaging its credibility".

Analysts say domestic politics in Thailand, where the temple is known as Khao Pra Viharn, have played a big role in fuelling the border fracas.

Preah Vihear's listing as a World Heritage site this month triggered political uproar in Bangkok, where the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) accused the government of selling out Thailand's history by initially backing the listing.

The PAD, a coalition of activists and royalists, is waging a street campaign against Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whom they accuse of acting as a proxy for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a coup in 2006.

"The PAD will use any tool, any instrument to bring down the Samak government. Khao Pra Viharn is a casualty of Thailand's domestic political crisis," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a foreign affairs lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Ek Madra in Phnom Penh and Melanie Lee in Singapore) (Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould and Roger Crabb)
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Border dispute, Myanmar, top ASEAN ministers' talks

SINGAPORE (AFP) — Southeast Asian foreign ministers urged Thailand and Cambodia to show restraint in a border dispute, and urged Myanmar to free all political prisoners, as annual talks began Sunday night.

Ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began their talks over dinner while two of its members, Thailand and Cambodia, were locked in an armed standoff over a border temple, and after rogue member Myanmar extended opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest.

Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to "exert utmost efforts" to find a peaceful solution to their standoff, Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo said after the dinner at a restaurant in the city-state's botanical gardens.

"Both sides affirmed that they would abide by their ASEAN and international obligations and exert their utmost efforts to find a peaceful solution to the issue," Yeo said in a statement.

More than 500 Thai troops and well over 1,000 Cambodian soldiers are stationed around a small Buddhist pagoda leading to the ruins of an 11th-century temple, where nearby land is claimed by both sides.

"We urged both sides to exercise utmost restraint and resolve this issue amicably in the spirit of ASEAN solidarity and good neighbourliness," Yeo said.

The foreign ministers also expressed "deep disappointment" over the extension of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's detention and called for all political prisoners in the country to be freed, Yeo said.

"They repeated the call by ASEAN leaders for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees as part of Myanmar's national reconciliation process," he said.

Myanmar's ruling generals extended Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest by one year on May 27. She has spent most of the past 18 years confined to her lakeside home in Myanmar's main city Yangon.

ASEAN has often been criticised for failing to act firmly against member Myanmar over human rights abuses and a lack of democratic progress.

Myanmar's junta should engage in "a meaningful dialogue with all political groups", Yeo said.

While the border dispute and Myanmar dominated the first night of the ministers' meeting, high on the official agenda is a new ASEAN charter which would create an EU-style economic block committed to democracy and human rights by 2015.

Efforts to get aid to about two million survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar are also expected to feature prominently when talks continue on Monday.

Myanmar earned international contempt by refusing to allow a foreign-led relief effort when the May cyclone left 138,000 dead or missing.

ASEAN won praise for eventually bridging the gap between the junta and the outside world over cyclone relief efforts by taking the lead on a joint aid mission with the military authorities and the United Nations.

The mission is expected to release its full report on the humanitarian situation in Myanmar's devastated southern delta region here on Monday.

The temple standoff began after three Thai protesters were arrested on Tuesday for crossing a fence to reach the ancient ruins, which have been a source of tension between the neighbours for decades.

Defence officials from both countries plan to meet on the border on Monday to try to defuse the crisis.

Thai government representatives here said they could not discuss whether the countries' ministers would hold bilateral talks in Singapore.

"Any tension, any misunderstanding between and among member states is always an issue of concern for ASEAN," the bloc's secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said earlier Sunday.

He said the ministers were keen to see the matter resolved "as soon as possible."
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Thailand stands to miss its chance to shine as asean chair

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

Thailand is like a monkey entangled in a huge fishnet - the more it tries to escape, the worse the situation gets.

Thailand's current situation also comes at the worst of times, as the country is taking on multiple roles within the region beginning this weekend.

Thailand will assume the Asean chair this weekend. It should be an exciting, if not historic, occasion for every Thai. After all, Thailand helped found Asean in August 1967 and will occupy this slot until the end of next year. As the first country to implement the Asean Charter, it wants to set the highest standards.

Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, considered the most democratic Asean members, are taking longer to ratify the charter. Ongoing debates in their capitals, especially Indonesia, among intellectuals, civil-society groups and parliaments have increased the charter's creditability regarding its people-centred concept. Despite its domestic doldrums, Bangkok expects to ratify the charter when Parliament opens next month.

Over the next 18 months, dozens of summit meetings with Asean's dialogue partners and supporters from at least 27 countries will take place. Leading dialogue partners, such as Australia, China and South Korea, have expressed high hopes that Thailand's stewardship of Asean would mean increased opportunities to work together to meet future challenges in the region and foster bilateral relations with the grouping as a whole.

But continued political uncertainty at home and renewed tensions between Thailand and Cambodia over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple are posing serious threats that could further undermine Thailand's leadership role in Asean, which has been degraded continuously since 2001. At the moment, both countries are under heavy pressure due to rising nationalist sentiment that could have an impact on the well-being and security of Asean. Phnom Penh has already asked the UN to intervene. If the border situation worsens, it could also dash Thailand's longstanding plan to strengthen ties and cooperation between Asean and civil-society groups, especially to work out terms of reference for an Asean human-rights body that would provide some teeth to investigate and punish rights violators.

One would think that at such a critical time, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej would show some leadership and vision. He has shown neither. Worse, he continues to perform his daily "freak show" without showing one iota of understanding of the implications on the country's regional and international standings that his impromptu statements have. In his weekly TV talk-show programme yesterday he made a turnaround on the controversies over the outcome of the World Heritage Committee's decision by attacking its listing of Preah Vihear.

Instead of naming a successor to Noppadon Pattama, he assigned his buddy, Deputy Prime Minister Sahas Banditkul, to attend the Asean annual meeting in Singapore beginning today. Sahas, who knows next to nothing on Thai diplomacy and Asean affairs, will have lots of explaining to do on a plethora of issues affecting Asean, including the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the Thai-Cambodian confrontation, as well as exchange views on the proposed regional security architecture, the Asia Pacific Community, suggested by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in early June.

The outgoing chair, Singapore, and Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan have done a good job of steering the grouping through the uncharted waters after Nargis. To a certain degree, Asean has regained its creditability after a decade of Burma's non-compliance by convincing the Burmese junta to loosen up its restrictive guidelines on international relief workers and lift limits imposed on air-lifts operated by UN agencies conducting rescue and relief operations into the Irrawaddy Delta. Now all UN agencies and recognised international humanitarian agencies are operating inside Burma with an expanded space. But only state-run Asean media get permits to file reports from inside.

Now the litmus test will be the common action taken by Asean members on Burma in the future. In Singapore today, Asean foreign ministers will consider the report prepared by the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment teams sponsored by Asean, the UN and Burma. The comprehensive report will help international donors plan ahead and pledge their support later this week in Rangoon at the Asean-UN International Pledging Conference. The UN has recently appealed for a total of US$303 million (Bt10 billion) to continue relief and recovery operations.

Future support would hinge very much on the Burmese junta's willingness to cooperate even further. The junta leaders have been persistent in saying that the relief phase has ended and the next step involves helping those who lost their livelihoods in the great flood. International relief organisations still want more access and increased freedom of movement in affected areas. So far, approximately 80 per cent of affected areas have seen some forms of help. Cyclone victims still need clean water, shelter, and medical care to combat dengue and malaria during the monsoon season.

Resentment among international donors is still running high over the junta's refusal to accept additional aid and allow more foreign relief workers into the country. Several thousand lives could have been saved during the first two weeks. Before they commit more assistance, other countries must ensure that a better monitoring mechanism is in place, especially in the current foreign-currency exchange regime, which has already benefited the junta's pockets greatly. Such guarantees are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to attain from the junta, which has no record of transparency and accountability.

In the aftermath of Nargis, Asean and Burma have found each other's value in their relationship. Asean has to take advantage of this unique position to make sure it produces a positive political outcome, otherwise all efforts will have been in vain. Beyond this, the international community may also be finding out just what Asean as a regional organisation can do and what it can offer to a new regional order.

Coming as it does now amid a confluence of negative factors and the term of the embattled Samak government, it is doubtful whether Asean - unceremoniously baptised by Nargis - will come of age under Thailand's chairmanship.
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Mindless leadership now downright dangerous

After Chetta's 'truce' and the Preah Vihear debacle, it's time to take a hard look at the people we elect

From the stand-off between Thai and Cambodian soldiers along the Northeast border to the deep South, where an end to the 100-year-old insurgency was announced, Thailand over this past week found itself caught between hope and despair. But in the end, the latter was too good to be true. How did Thailand find itself in this predicament? The answer, it seems, lies with all of us, particularly our short-sighted, ill-considered, brain-dead leaders who lack the political courage to go against public sentiment that could, if worse came to worst, put Thailand on the war path.

First, there was retired Army commander Chetta Thanajaro claiming credit for supposedly brokering an end to the ongoing insurgency in the deep South. The former defence minister, who now leads the small Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana Party, thought he could score some quick political points by making the bold announcement.

But once it became clear that the self-proclaimed separatist leaders were not the real thing, Chetta had nowhere to go but down.

Surely he couldn't have been that na๏ve? After all, the man is a highly decorated Army veteran and a former defence minister. Did he really think he could get away with having three unnamed men sporting fake beards announce a historic breakthrough in the deep South? Did he think that would be enough to convince the public?

He must know that the credibility of his claim will be readily apparent in time. The ceasefire was supposed to have gone into effect on July 14. The statement was aired on July 17. In the three intervening days, and shortly thereafter, police headquarters in Yala and Pattani were bombed, while a patrol unit was ambushed just two hours after the supposed "truce" was announced.

If this is the measure of our elected leaders, perhaps it is time for us to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough as citizens to scrutinise the kind of people we put into office.

Meanwhile, along the Thai-Cambodian border in the Northeast, leaders of the two countries have found themselves on a fast-moving train of nationalism and they can't get off.

First, the Cambodians succeeded in getting Preah Vihear declared a Unesco World Heritage site, with Cambodia as the only country attached to the bid, never mind that part of the temple is on disputed territory. After all, this is an election year in Cambodia and every move like this helps - even if it means that only part of the temple could be put on the prestigious list.

The dispute took a turn for the worse when a group of Thais decided they wouldn't accept the decision and would rather continue to cry over spilled milk. They blocked roads, charged the hills and spilled blood as they clashed with fellow Thais on the emotionally charged matter.

And when some of them crossed into the disputed overlapping border area and forced Cambodian authorities to react, the government responded by dispatching 400 troops to the area. Cambodia reciprocated and dispatched 1,000 troops.

Phnom Penh was confident that it had acted properly and thus flew foreign officials into the border area to witness firsthand the deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Does anybody know the rules of engagement, or even what the military mission of the troops of the two countries is?

Pictures of the troops from both sides sitting on the grass and having a picnic lunch were certainly for domestic consumption. This is not to say that this is unprecedented. Troops and security officials of both countries have often mingled in the past. Doing so became status quo back in 2000 when both countries agreed that it should be. There have been some minor disagreements and protests, such as those taking place on the road leading to the site from inland Cambodia, but back then diplomatic notes of protest were not delivered by hundreds of armed paramilitary rangers. Tensions didn't stop soldiers on either side from getting together and sipping whisky at night.

Today, the atmosphere has changed completely. Protest letters from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen calling on Thailand to withdraw its troops drew an equally strong-worded response from Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

The two men, it seems, have put themselves in a tight corner and don't know how to get out of it.
It would not have been so bad if it was just the two of them. We could call it the "Battle of the Brain-dead". But unfortunately, any errors in judgement from them could have grave consequences on the citizens of both countries.

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