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Cambodia PM seeks talks with Thais after deadly clash

 
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October 18, 2008

Thailand-Cambodia Border Dispute:
Cambodia PM seeks talks with Thais after deadly clash
Businesses fear border dispute to hit economic ties

Cambodia's prime minister called Friday for more talks with Thailand after a deadly armed clash raised fears the two neighbors were headed for a full-scale war over a patch of disputed land along their border, reported the Associated Press.

"We can still talk to each other and are not yet enemies unwilling to talk to each other at all," Hun Sen said after a Cabinet meeting in the capital.

On Wednesday, a gun and rocket battle near the 11th-century Preah Vihear border temple killed two Cambodian soldiers and wounded three others. Seven Thai troops were also injured.

The fighting lasted about an hour, with each side accusing the other of firing first.

Hun Sen used much more heated rhetoric the day before the fighting, when he warned Thai troops to stop trespassing on Cambodian land, calling the contested territory a "life-and-death battle zone."

Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkumnerd said military officials from the two sides agreed Thursday to hold joint patrols to reduce tension and the chances of another clash.

 
But on Friday, Gen. Ke Kim Yan, commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, denied any deal for joint patrols had been reached.

He said the two countries had only agreed to maintain their current troop deployments in the disputed area and inform each other about any troop movements to prevent further misunderstanding.

"The situation has now returned to normal, but the border problems must be solved by negotiations," Ke Kim Yan told reporters at Preah Vihear temple, where he and other top military brass visited Cambodian soldiers.

However, the situation remained tense, with troops from the two sides still in close proximity to each other.

"We have the same standing order to remain calm but on alert," said Men Li, a Cambodian army major based near the temple.

Hun Sen, seeking to reassure thousands of Cambodian villagers who have fled their homes near the conflict area, said, "There is no large-scale war occurring."

"I would not call it a war. This was just a minor armed clash," said Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter.

Hun Sen opened the Cabinet meeting in Phnom Penh by leading his ministers in a minute of silence for the soldiers killed during Wednesday's clash. A third Cambodian soldier died Thursday, apparently from inhaling too much smoke from firing B-40 rockets.

The fighting was the latest flare-up in a decades-old dispute over a stretch of jungle near the temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.

Resurgent Thai nationalism, promoted by a protest group that is seeking to topple the current Thai government, has put authorities in Bangkok under political pressure to aggressively pursue claims to the land.

Businesses fear border dispute to hit economic ties
A tense border spat that left two soldiers dead this week threatens burgeoning economic ties between Cambodia and Thailand, business leaders and government officials fear, reported AFP.

Shortly after gunfights broke out between troops from the two countries on Wednesday, businessmen were among the several hundred Thais who fled the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh for home, risking booming trade and investment.

"The conflict needs to be resolved urgently. If it continues or expands further, it will bring a huge (economic) loss to both sides," Niyom Wairatpanij, chairman of Thailand's Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok, told AFP.

"People from both countries are already afraid to conduct their business near the borders. Thai businessmen are concerned," Niyom said.

The chamber was lowering trade growth targets for this year between the two nations by 8.0 billion baht ($233.5 million) to 52 billion baht, he said, in the wake of the dispute which shows few signs of a quick resolution.

The standoff flared in July after Cambodia's ancient Preah Vihear temple was awarded World Heritage status by the UN cultural body Unesco, angering some Thai nationalists who claim ownership of the site.

The situation quickly escalated into a military confrontation, with up to 1,000 Cambodian and Thai troops facing off for six weeks, although both sides in August agreed to reduce troop numbers in the main disputed area.

In the first eight months of this year, Thailand exported 47.04 billion baht worth of goods to its neighbour -- mostly sugar, fuel, metals, auto parts, and other industrial goods -- which was nearly equal to total trade between the two countries in 2007, the Thailand's Foreign Trade Department says.

Cambodian exports to Thailand which include fruits, vegetables, steel and clothing were worth over $61 million in the first eight months this year -- already nearly $1.2 million more than exports for all of last year.

But the Cambodian government said the hostilities had already started to affect investment.

"Many Thai big investors fear that if anything wrong happened they would find it hard to withdraw their shares or collect payment," said Mao Thora, secretary of state at Cambodia's commerce ministry.

"Only small or medium-sized (Thai) enterprises are still continuing their business in Cambodia."

Cambodia also stands to suffer a loss of tourism revenue as Thais shy away from visiting ancient temples and border casinos.

Although relations between Thailand and Cambodia have been amicable for decades, Thais have good reason to be nervous as the border dispute has heightened nationalism on both sides.

The Thai embassy and some dozen other Thai businesses in Phnom Penh were looted and burned in the 2003 anti-Thai riots after false reports that a Thai actress insulted Cambodia.

After this week's fighting, Cambodian police were posted in front of the Thai embassy and undercover agents were assigned to protect Thai interests in the country, said Cambodian interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak.

"We have had the experience that a sensitive issue like this can stir people's nationalism," Khieu Sopheak said.

"We protect all Thai businessmen and citizens in Cambodia in case our people get furious and do something wrong that would not benefit either side."

Sawai Tangtanapon, vice president of CP Cambodia Co Ltd, which uses imports from Thailand, said if the dispute escalated and the border was closed, both countries would be worse off.

"We are good neighbours and have a lot of mutual businesses, so both sides should sit and talk," Sawai said.

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