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Ahead of Talks, a Host of Tension Remains

Former Khmer Rouge soldiers who had enjoyed a decade of peace picked up their weapons again this month, finding themselves once again in jungle positions, not in a civil war this time, but in an armed defense against a potential Thai threat.

Cambodian and Thai leaders are seeking to end the border crisis through bilateral talks in Siem Reap Wednesday, but officials and analysts said this week the tension over the border at Preah Vihear temple would not be easily assuaged.

Cambodia, which shares 805 kilometers with Thailand, has not had a conflict with its western neighbor in 46 years, but the last time it did, the standoff was over the same temple. Thailand occupied Preah Vihear temple until a 1962 World Court decision ruled in favor of Cambodian ownership.

The rankling loss of the temple flared up in Thai politics once Unesco's World Heritage Committee voted to protect the temple under Cambodia.

"The tension led to an internal conflict between politicians of Thailand," government spokesman Khieu Kanharith explained. "The opposition party had protested against irregularities [and] corruption, and finally they pretended to stir up a nationalist movement through the issue of Preah Vihear."

Preah Vihear temple may have sparked the current crisis, but driving it are complicated Thai politics and lingering failures between both sides to settle their borders.

Thailand's government is still reeling from a 2006 coup that ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Thai agreement to allow Cambodia to forward its Preah Vihear application to Unesco in June led to the resignation of the Thai foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama.

"The Thai government is under pressure from the opposition and wants to please them," said Im Francois, a political analyst for the Center for Social Developmetn. "The Thai government finally decided to deploy troops at Preah Vihear, but this attitude is contradictory to the international context and the context of Asean, which prohibits any sort of deployment of troops."

The border crisis is also becoming a problem for Asean legitimacy, he said.

"So what does that mean for the future of Asean?" he said. "Will it be dissolved, or become useless?"

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, of the Sam Rainsy Party, said this week the deployment of Thai soldiers was the product of an ambitious government and the consequence of a bilateral agreement over the temple in June.

A disputed area around Preah Vihear temple, meanwhile, is bound to incur military tensions, Im Francois said.

And so the former Khmer Rouge fighters have been called again, and more talks are set, as Thai troops occupy a pagoda on disputed land they claim as their own.

"It is not yet at the peak of tension, but Thailand wants to formalize the land now that it has encroached on," Khieu Kanharith said. "We're telling the international community that Thailand is abusing Cambodian sovereignty."