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Monday, July 28, 2008

Thailand and Cambodia Try Again to Defuse Temple Row

Thailand and Cambodia Try Again to Defuse Temple Row

By Ek Madra

Mon Jul 28, 2008 4:34 AM BST136

SIEM REAP, Cambodia (Reuters) - Thailand's new foreign minister started talks with his Cambodian counterpart on Monday to defuse a row over a 900-year-old temple that has raised fears of a military clash between the southeast Asian neighbors.

Career diplomat Tej Bunnag, who was appointed at the weekend after the resignation of his predecessor over the Preah Vihear spat, declined to talk to reporters as he entered the meeting with Cambodia's Hor Namhong in the tourist town of Siem Reap.

The Cambodian side was also keeping quiet before the talks, which are not expected to yield any major breakthrough in the dispute over 1.8 square miles of scrubland near the temple.

The ancient Hindu temple sits on a jungle-clad escarpment that forms the natural boundary between the two countries. The International Court of Justice awarded the ruins to Cambodia in a 1962 ruling that has rankled in Thailand ever since.

The Hague court did not rule on the disputed bits of land next to the temple.

With troops and artillery building up on both sides of the border, Cambodia has threatened to take the spat to the United Nations Security Council. Thailand wants all talks with its smaller neighbor to remain strictly two-way.

"Attempts to bring the bilateral issue to broader frameworks at this stage could complicate the situation and in turn, produce undesirable repercussions on the good relations and goodwill," Tej said in a statement on Sunday.

The talks -- the second attempt to resolve the dispute through dialogue -- are expected to run until around 4.30 pm

(0930 GMT).


Negotiations a week ago between top military officials quickly descended into an argument over which of several maps drawn up in the last 100 years should be used to settle ownership of the temple and surrounding area.

General Chea Mon, a Cambodian commander at the temple, said both he and Thai officers had ordered a halt to the digging of trenches and bunkers for the duration of the talks, but made clear that any pull-back was out of the question.

"We are still in a military stand-off," he told Reuters.

The dispute flared up when street protesters in Bangkok trying to oust the Thai government seized on its approval of Phnom Penh's bid to list the ruins as a World Heritage site.

A general election campaign in Cambodia ensured the row quickly escalated, although Prime Minister Hun Sen's landslide victory in Sunday's poll gives him scope to tone down the rhetoric and move towards some understanding with Thailand.

However, there is still a risk of the row taking on a life of its own, with ordinary Cambodians organizing collections of cash, food and clothing in the capital to send to troops on the border.

In 2003, a Cambodian nationalist mob torched the Thai embassy and several Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh after erroneous reports of comments from a Thai soap opera star suggesting Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temples really belonged to Thailand.

(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould)


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