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Cambodia Hints at Broader Solution for Border

In a swing through the border areas earlier this month, Prime Minister Hun Sen raised for the first time the possibility of seeking international intervention to solve a dispute over contested areas, where multiple attempts at bilateral talks have failed.

“Cambodia has come to a point of being forced to go to the [International Court of Justice] in the Hague and to the UN Security Council,” Hun Sen told a gathering of soldiers on the border that was broadcast on national television.

Both sides are contesting a 4.6-meter strip of land near Preah Vihear temple. Cambodia claims the land under a map drawn up in the early 1900s and apparently agreed on in a 1962 World Court decision. Thailand uses a later map and claims the land for itself.

The only thing the two sides have been able to agree on is to reduce the number of troops that have built up since July 2008, when Preah Vihear temple was added to Unesco’s World Heritage protection list, under Cambodian jurisdiction, sparking nationalist fervor on both sides.

A Thai government spokesman told VOA Khmer last week that Bangkok remains committed to a bilateral solution.

“We have a bilateral agreement with Cambodia on border issues, so we hope that this will be handled by this [joint] border committee,” said the spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, who declined to discuss the potential of an international solution.

Panitan said the border dispute would be resolved once relations between the two countries improve.

Diplomatic affairs have been strained by Cambodia’s hiring of fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser, and Cambodian officials remain unconvinced.

“Thailand only expresses its intentions but does not have a real will to find a solution,” Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, said.

A number of agreements from meetings between the foreign ministers have failed to pass in Thai parliament, he said.

“It’s more than a year that provisional agreements, as well as minutes of border committee [meetings], have not been passed by their parliament,” Koy Kuong said. “In reality, Thailand always increases its military forces along the border.”

So far, soldiers on each side have engaged in several firefights, including heavy machine gun, mortar and rocket fire. At least eight soldiers have died, though in each case, the fighting has failed to escalate into broader warfare.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, said Thailand has violated agreements already in place between the two countries, and he put the blame on the country’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has been quoted in Thai media making claims to the contested strip of land west of Preah Vihear temple.

“The negligence and undermining by Abhisit towards the Cambodian nation on the border issue is very hard to tolerate,” Phay Siphan said.

Hun Sen’s willingness to consider an international solution was welcomed by Sean Pengse, a border advocate who now lives in France.

However, he warned, a resolution with the Security Council would need to be passed by a chamber where a number of countries have shared political interests with Thailand.

“Are we sure that we would win, or not?” he asked. “Because some countries strongly support Thailand.”

Neither is the Hague an ideal solution, he said. The World Court has already made a ruling on the 1962 dispute over Preah Vihear temple, citing in its decision a map that clearly delineates the border. Convincing Thailand to agree to go to the court again will be tough, he said.

A better plan would be to approach signatories of the 1991 Peace Accords, which protect the sovereignty of the Cambodian border, he said.

However, Cambodian officials say the accords do not apply to the current dispute. No official contacted by VOA Khmer would give a clear indication of what might actually be done with the UN.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen has continues to focus on the frontier. On Friday he ordered a reorganization of military and police on the border aimed at improving their living conditions and improving morale.