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Cablegate: Thais Content with Local Negotiations to Defuse Border Tensions with Cambodia at Ancient Khmer Temple

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

"C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BANGKOK 003333



E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/18/2015

Classified By: Political Counselor Robert J. Clarke, Reason: 1.4 (d)

1. Summary: Recent news stories about a dispute at a historically sensitive ancient Khmer temple at the border between Thailand and Cambodia inaccurately reported increased Thai troop deployments and explosion of a landmine inside the temple. Tensions at this temple site, which flare periodically, apparently have led to negotiations between local officials. Royal Thai Government (RTG) authorities say encroachment and environmental damage by a growing community of Cambodian villagers and vendors in the area surrounding Preah Vihear (AKA Prasat Khao Phra Viharn in the Thai language) temple are behind the tensions. They are not overly concerned, however, and expect the local negotiations to defuse the situation. The Thai Minister of Defense will visit Phnom Penh next month and told the Thai press that he will raise the border dispute as one of a number of bilateral issues. End Summary.


2. (U) During the week of May 16, Thai news coverage of a reported border dispute in Si Saket province included claims that the Thai Army had sent up to 500 troops to reinforce the Thai - Cambodian border, that Thai troops had begun construction of quarters and the deployment of artillery around the temple and that a landmine had exploded in the ground around Preah Vihear temple. Prasat Khao Phra Viharn (as it is referred to in the Thai language) or Preah Vihear (in Khmer) was once under the jurisdiction of Thailand. Since July 15, 1962, jurisdiction of the site has reverted to Cambodia following a territorial case resolution in the International Court of Justice. However, the easiest access to the site is from the Thai side of the border, meaning a border checkpoint essentially serves as the entrance to this historically significant temple, which has religious and historical ties to both Ankhor Wat in Cambodia's Siem Riap Province, and Thailand's Phanom Rung temple in Buriram Province and Phi Mai temple in Nakhon Ratchasima Province.

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3. (C) Poloff spoke with the Cambodian desk officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Mongkol Visitstump who stated that, ""For the record, relations between Cambodia and Thailand are normal."" He said that the border area at Preah Vihear has been an issue for years and recent developments did not signify a significant deterioration in relations with Cambodia. He denied media reports that up to 500 new troops had been sent to the area and claimed that the border remained open. Mongkol said that local officials on both sides of the border were working on the latest disagreement and that the RTG would leave it to the local officials to resolve the latest issues, as they had in the past. Mongkol noted that the ""rapidly growing"" Cambodian community in the area around Preah Vihear was creating environmental damage and polluting the Thai border area, especially local water sources.

4. (U) Embassy officers contacted various local officials, including the Thai District Chief and local Police commanders to clarify the situation. Local Thai administrative officials said that the Thai border checkpoint was not closed during recent disputes with Cambodian villagers encroaching in the zone around the temple. The police officials did state, however, that while the Thai checkpoint remains officially open, Cambodian officials have closed the entrance gate to the temple, effectively closing the only border crossing point in the immediate area. All of our contacts denied the reports of increased Thai Army personnel deployments, or any landmine incidents, as a consequence of tensions.

5. (U) An Embassy officer spoke with officials at the Thailand Mine Action Center (TMAC), who stated they had no information or comments to offer on the reported landmine incident. Poloff contacted an expatriate NGO worker at Jesuit Relief Services (JRS) in Bangkok, which coordinates landmine awareness and removal with TMAC. She stated that JRS had seen the media report but no official incident report had reached her office. She did noted that the area is heavily mined and that TMAC and a local Thai foundation have an active demining project along the Thai side of the border. She was unaware of any demining that had taken place on the Cambodian side.

6. (C) Comment: This latest incident is indicative of how the Thai media will sometimes run sensationalist material without regard to how it might stir up nationalist sentiments and heighten tensions between Thailand and Cambodia. This type of careless reporting can have serious consequences. For example, the sacking of the Thai Embassy by a mob of demonstrators in Phnom Penh in January 2003 was partially triggered by false reports in Cambodia that a Thai actress had claimed Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. Thai reporting fanned the flames in Bangkok and almost sparked a retaliation. This time -- while there are still real differences to be resolved between the two nations on access and the development of tourism at Preah Vihear -- the local negotiations appear to be enough to keep the situation under control. The Thai MFA is taking the latest flare-up in stride and, at the height of media attention on this ""border tension,"" Prime Ministers Thaksin and Hun Sen were amiably having dinner together in Bangkok at a welcoming event for the Miss Universe contestants. Thai Defense Minister Tamarak told journalists he will include this matter on his agenda when he visits Phnom Penh in a few weeks. The Thai public does not appear to be at all fired up by this cycle of misreporting by the Thai media. End Comment.


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