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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cambodia PM meets Thai minister on border dispute

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen hosted one of Thailand's deputy premiers at his home on Saturday in an attempt to diffuse a long-standing border row with friendly chat.

Hun Sen's wife cooked lunch for Suthep Thaugsuban and Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon at his residence in southern Kandal province, Suthep said, after tensions recently escalated over the UNESCO listing of an ancient temple.

Troops from both sides have built up on the Thai-Cambodia frontier in recent days near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, where seven soldiers have died in clashes since tensions flared last year.

Thailand's decision to ask world heritage body UNESCO to reconsider listing the temple has angered Hun Sen, but despite claiming the issue would not be discussed Saturday, Suthep said they had agreed to reduce tensions at the site.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen asked me to convey the message to our Prime Minister Abhisit (Vejjajiva) and the Thai people that Cambodia will try to reduce tensions (along the border) to assist economic cooperation between the two countries," Suthep told reporters after returning to Thailand.

"We should let bygones be bygones, forget the nightmare of the past and look forward to a positive future for both countries," he said.

Suthep also announced that a dam would be constructed in Cambodia to channel water to Thailand's eastern seaboard.

Foreign ministry spokesman Kuoy Kong said the pair had simply had a "friendly talk".

Hun Sen vowed on Thursday to take a hard stance on the dispute over the temple, the ownership of which was awarded to Cambodia by the World Court in 1962, sparking decades of tensions.

Unrest flared in July 2008 after UNESCO granted world heritage status to the ancient Khmer temple with its crumbling stone staircases and elegant carvings.
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Q+A-Preah Vihar temple and Thai-Cambodian tensions

BANGKOK, (Reuters) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met behind closed doors on Saturday with Thailand's deputy premier, Suthep Thaugsuban, as tensions simmered over the disputed Preah Vihear temple.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva sent his right-hand man, Suthep Thaugsuban, to meet Hun Sen to explain why Thailand was challenging a U.N. decision to make the 900-year-old temple a world heritage site under the sole jurisdiction of Cambodia. [ID:nBKK469181]

WHAT'S THE HISTORY OF PREAH VIHEAR?

Preah Vihear, or Khao Phra Viharn as the Thais call it, was completed in the 11th century and pre-dates Cambodia's more famous Angkor Wat temple complex by 100 years.

Many say its stunning setting atop a jungle-clad escarpment overlooking northern Cambodia also eclipses its celebrated cousin as the finest of all the ruins left by the mighty Khmer civilisation.

The temple has in recent years been accessible mainly from Thailand. Landmines and Khmer Rouge guerrillas kept it off-limits from the Cambodian side for decades.

WHY THE DISPUTE?

Both sides have historically laid claim to the temple but a 1962 World Court ruling awarded it to Cambodia, by a vote of 9-3.

Thailand and Cambodia have since squabbled over the demarcation of the border and jurisdiction over the 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) of land around Preah Vihear has never been settled.

For generations, the temple stirred nationalist passions on both sides. Before the court in the Hague made its ruling, Thailand's government organised a fundraiser in which every citizen donated 1 baht to pay for the legal team.

COULD THE ISSUE TURN VIOLENT?

Cambodia's bid last October to list the ruins as a World Heritage Site sparked a flare-up in which one Thai and three Cambodian soldiers died in a gunfight.

In the most recent flare-up in April, two Thai soldiers died in an exchange of rocket and rifle fire with Cambodian troops.

Both countries have sent more troops to the border and security analysts say minor skirmishes are always a possibility.

A military standoff would further strain ties between the two historic foes and only exacerbate a long-running dispute that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

HOW IS IT BEING RESOLVED?

The two countries routinely pledge cooperation over the temple issue, give guarantees their border troops will not engage in hostilities and agree to delineate the border once and for all, but the quarrelling never seems to stop. Thailand wants joint development and supervision of the Hindu temple which could one day be a lucrative tourist site. However, the temple debate is often used as a tool to gain popular support or to distract the public from other issues at home.

"This challenge by Thailand has more to do with the political situation in Bangkok," said Chanthana Banprasirichote, a political science professor at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University.

"They know this is a good way to boost their credibility and get support from the public." (Compiled by Martin Petty; Editing by Sugita Katyal)
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