Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Military flexes its muscle

Abhisit approves army exercise near temple

Published: 26/01/2011

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has given the army the green light to conduct a military exercise near Preah Vihear temple to display its strength as Cambodia continues to lay claim to the disputed area.

Thousands of People’s Alliance for Democracy supporters join the movement’s protest near Makkhawan Rangsan Bridge on Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue. The yellow shirts gathered yesterday for the first day of what is expected to be a protracted rally. APICHIT JINAKUL

The provocative move came after Thailand demanded Cambodia remove a stone tablet carrying a message in Khmer that accused Thai troops of invading Cambodia territory from that spot.

A senior army source who asked not to be named said yesterday the military exercise near the border was proposed by the army.

Thai gamblers would also be blocked from visiting Cambodian casinos close to Thai territory if Phnom Penh refused demands to remove the tablet.

Army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha said Thailand would follow proper procedures in handling border disputes with Cambodia.

''There are three steps to solving border issues. They include negotiations, intensified measures and the use of force. We will not move directly from Step 1 to Step 3,'' Gen Prayuth said.

The tablet was installed in front of Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara temple, about 300 metres from the ancient Preah Vihear temple.

''We must show our strength,'' the source quoted the prime minister as saying in his recent meeting with Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Gen Prayuth.

The source said Gen Prayuth planned to deploy infantrymen close to Preah Vihear in Kantharalak district of Si Sa Ket province.

The deployment will reinforce paramilitary rangers who are guarding a disputed area with no back-up.

''The army plans to conduct a drill that includes artillery fire close to the border,'' the source said.

The source revealed the military exercise was aimed at sending a message to Cambodia that Thailand is not only unhappy with the placement of the stone tablet in the disputed area but also Cambodia's continuing construction of a road to Preah Vihear.

The 3.6-kilometre road is being built on the 4.6-square-kilometre disputed area next to Preah Vihear.

Cambodia has ignored Thailand's re peated protests against the roadworks. The source said Cambodia and China were accelerating the work on the road with the aim to facilitate visits to the Preah Vihear temple from the Cambodian side.

The source said Mr Abhisit also gave the nod to the army to prevent Thai gamblers from crossing the border to visit Cambodian casinos in Poi Pet, opposite Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province.

The source said the prime minister did not mention the possibility of border closure which would seriously affect local people.

as well as two Thai people: Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipatanapaiboon who were prosecuted allegedly for trespassing and espionage on Cambodian soil. Mr Veera is still detained and verdicts on their cases are expected on Feb 1.

Mr Abhisit was also said to have agreed to allow the army to buy weapons it needed to handle the border situation.

The nationalist People's Alliance for Democracy yesterday urged the gov ernment to use the country's stronger military capacity to gain leverage over the Cambodian government in its negotiations with Phnom Penh on disputed border areas.

Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang, a core PAD leader, said the Thai military did not have to wage a war with Cambodia to regain Thai sovereignty over disputed areas along the border.

But it could use the country's military might to gain a stronger bargaining position.

The government has not tried to gain such leverage through the demonstration of Thailand's military capacity, Maj Gen Chamlong said.

''Consequently, it has allowed the Cambodian government to have the upper hand,'' he said.

''Our fighter jets can reach Cambodian skies in five minutes.''

Asked if such a demonstration of Thailand's military might would hurt the country's bilateral relationship with its neighbour, Maj Gen Chamlong replied: ''What are you afraid of more? Hurting the ties or losing territory?''

PAD spokesman Panthep Phongphuaphan said Thailand's military capacity was certainly higher than that of Cambodia.

The government should use this advantage in its effort to protect the country's sovereignty and pressure the Cambodian government to move Cambodian communities out of the disputed areas along the border.

More importantly, Thailand should revoke the 2000 memorandum of understanding with Cambodia as the agreement gave Phnom Penh greater negotiating powers and enabled Cambodians to continue living on Thai soil, Mr Panthep said.


New tablet 'even worse'

Cambodian troops have removed a stone tablet placed near the Preah Vihear temple carrying a message accusing Thailand of invading the country.

But the tablet has been replaced with another that could ratchet up the tension even further between the two countries. It simply states the area is part of Cambodia.

The first tablet put in place last month at Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara, next to the Preah Vihear temple, read, according to the Phnom Penh Post: "Here! is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008."

This angered Thai troops, their commanders and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who claim the temple is located in a disputed area open to Thai troops.

A Cambodian armed forces officer who asked not to be named said the offending sign had been replaced, Phnom Penh Post reported.

Whether the new sign will be received any more favourably remains to be seen.

"Here! is Cambodia," reads the sign erected yesterday.

"I heard [the placement of the sign] was ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen," the officer said.


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