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Talks ease tension, joint patrols agreed

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October 17, 2008

Thailand-Cambodia Border Dispute:
Talks ease tension, joint patrols agreed
Indonesia calls for Asean meet on border clashes
Border clashes yet to affect Thai firms in Cambodia

The Cambodian and Thai militaries agreed Thursday to hold joint patrols at a disputed border area where a gun battle between the two sides left two soldiers dead, the Associated Press quoted a Thai army spokesman as saying.

A Cambodian army officer confirmed the two sides agreed on measures to prevent further fighting after Wednesday's hour-long gunfight killed two Cambodians, wounded three others and wounded seven Thais.

The agreement came at a meeting of senior officers held in Thailand's Sisaket province, just across the border from Cambodia.

Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkumnerd said the two sides agreed they would both maintain troops in the area, with "joint patrols to reduce tension and the chances of a misunderstanding which could lead to another clash."

Maj. Gen. Srey Doek, a Cambodian army commander, said the sides "have agreed to prevent further armed clashes" and will continue negotiations on the demarcation issues that led to the dispute.

The situation was calm but volatile, with soldiers on both sides facing off on territory near the landmark 11th-century Preah Vihear temple.

"We have been ordered by our commanders to be on alert and ready to fight," said a Cambodian soldier at the temple, Capt. Theam Thuy.

On the Cambodian side, Associated Press reporters saw dozens of additional Cambodian troops in armored personnel carriers on their way to the front line.

After Wednesday's fighting, thousands of Cambodian villagers living near the temple fled their homes, fearing more violence. Families packed rice, clothes and chickens into cars, pickup trucks and carts pulled by motorized plowing machines, forming long convoys heading away from the border zone.

The clash was the first deadly fighting since July, when the Unesco approved Cambodia's bid to make Preah Vihear temple a UN World Heritage site. The decision ignited long-standing tensions between the neighbors, who both claim land around the temple, and prompted the two countries to rush troops to the border.

Many Thais feared their country's claim over nearby land would be undermined, and anti-government protesters pressed the Thai government to take a harder line on the border conflict. The protesters have riled their country's politics by seeking the ouster of the ruling party, occupying the grounds of the prime minister's offices for the past two months.

Thailand Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat told reporters Thursday that the dispute will be solved through negotiations.

"Though there was a clash yesterday, it was not a major one," he said.

Each side accused the other of firing first. Thailand's Foreign Ministry said Thai soldiers were peacefully patrolling their own territory along the border when Cambodian soldiers shot at them with rocket propelled grenades and submachine guns.

Cambodia's Foreign Ministry accused Thai troops of launching "heavy armed attacks" at three different locations to push back Cambodians from positions inside Cambodian territory.

Indonesia calls for Asean meet to discuss border dispute
Meanwhile Indonesia is also proposing a meeting among Asean leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit in Bejing next week to discuss the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, reported Indonesian state news agency Antara.

"President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been wanting the holding of a meeting among ASEAN heads of government to discuss the global financial crisis. With the occurrence of the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, his wish to have such a meeting has even become stronger," Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirayuda was quoted as saying at the presidential office in Jakarta Thursday.

"Cambodia had ordered its military commander to talk to the Thai military commander although it had suffered two casualties," said Wirajuda.

However, Wirajuda added, if the problem was not handled carefully the armed clash could lead to a wider conflict that would damage Asean's image.

"Therefore, we are considering what Asean can do about the case," he added. "There is an urgency to talk about the dispute. The sooner, the better," said Wirajuda.

At a recent Asean Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, Asean had urged the two countries in dispute to solve their problem through bilateral talks. "If the bilateral talks fail to yield a solution, it was proposed to form a ministerial-level Asean Contact to mediate the dispute," he said.

Thailand is expected to host the 14th Asean Summit on December 15, 2008.

Border clashes yet to affect Thai firms in Cambodia
Thai companies in Cambodia are on the alert after a border clash between the two countries and have pulled out some Thai employees but, for now, they're trying to carry on more or less as normal, Reuters quoted executives as saying Thursday.

"For businesses in Cambodia, there's nothing out of the ordinary. We continue to run business as normal," said Watchai Vilailuck, chief executive of telecoms group Samart Corp. "But we are ready if there is an evacuation."

"We have put down deep roots in Cambodia over a long period and are attached to the people there. And I don't think they hate us," added Watchai, whose family also has businesses in Cambodia.

Samart, 19 percent owned by Telekom Malaysia, runs Cambodia Air Traffic Services, which looks after air traffic control in Cambodia, including Sihanoukville airport, and operates a power plant for a local cement firm owned by Siam Cement Group.

A Siam Cement official said the company had pulled out all of its 20 Thai staff since Wednesday's fighting, in which two Cambodian soldiers were killed, but its business was running normally.

Khon Kaen Sugar Industry, Thailand's fourth biggest sugar firm, said half of its 100 or so Thai employees had left after the clash, and that the situation, if prolonged for one or two months, could delay the construction of a new plant there.

"But we are still committed to our investment," Assistant Vice President Chalush Chinthammithe told Reuters.

It is in the process of building a new sugar plant on the coastal island of Koh Kong that is scheduled to begin production in early 2009.

Satellite operator Thaicom said its telephone business in Cambodia -- it is the second biggest mobile phone company -- had not been affected and it intended to go ahead with plans to expand its network to boost competitiveness.

Its 51 percent owned Cambodia Shinawatra provides fixed-line and mobile phone services in cities, tourist sites and border areas where there is active trade between Cambodia and Thailand.

"Due to intense competition, we can't stop investing. We are confident of moving forward because our business is like a public utility, which is essential for people," Executive Chairman Dumrong Kasemset told a conference call.

"There is no impact to our revenue and (earnings) so far. In the worst case scenario, the potential risk is to our fixed assets," he added.

The company recently installed 400 more base stations in Cambodia and planned to boost the number to 1,000 by the end of this year from 700 now, Dumrong said.

The number of its mobile subscribers was expected to rise to up to 1 million by the end of the year from about 750,000 now.

Despite the show of optimism, shares in Thaicom slipped 11.6 percent to 2.44 baht at the midday break on the Thai bourse, underperforming a 4.7 percent drop in the main index. Siam Cement fell 4.13 percent to 115 baht while Khon Kaen Sugar declined 2.9 percent to 5.25 baht.

Samart Corp shares fell 4.7 percent and oil company PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) lost 6.2 percent.

PTTEP has one offshore project, Block B, in Cambodia, which is still in the early stages of exploration, and another, Block G9-43, in an area overlapping Thailand and Cambodia, where there has been no activity to date.

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