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Thursday, 30 April 2009

Shockwaves of Cambodian temple dispute linger

The ashes of the Phsar Krom Market burnt by Thai shelling.

ABC Radio Australia

Updated April 30, 2009

A serious clash between Thai and Cambodian soldiers near the Preah Vihear temple on the northern Cambodian border in early April resulted in the Thai Army shelling and destroying a civilian market and homes adjacent to the temple.

No civilians were hurt in the shelling but a Cambodian NGO has filed a 9 million US dollar claim against the Thai government on behalf of the 900 affected villagers. And a human rights NGO says Thailand's shelling of the market was a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speakers: Moeung Sonn, director of the Khmer Civilization Foundation; Rupert Abbott lawyer and director at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights

CARMICHAEL: The 900-year-old temple of Preah Vihear on the northern border of Cambodia is one of the country's most treasured possessions. Preah Vihear is also contentious - Thailand lost an international court case over ownership of the temple back in 1962. But demarcation of the 800-kilometre long border between the two nations still hasn't been agreed - and that includes the area around the Preah Vihear temple, which sits squarely on the contested border.

Over the past year tensions have risen and subsided as troops from both countries faced off there. In early April fighting broke out at Preah Vihear, and several Thai soldiers were killed and injured - the precise number isn't clear. But what is clear is that three rockets - seemingly fired by the Thai army - hit the local market where 260 families lived. The market and their homes were completely destroyed. The temple also suffered some damage. Moeung Sonn runs a local NGO called the Khmer Civilization Foundation. On behalf of the villagers, Moeung Sonn sent a compensation claim to the Thai government for nine million US dollars. He hasn't yet had a response from Bangkok.

Photographs on the wall of Moeung Sonn's office in Phnom Penh show the remains of the market - there isn't much, just a wreckage of scorched corrugated iron.

SONN: This area is protected by UNESCO.

CARMICHAEL: Because it is a World Heritage Site

SONN: Yes, World Heritage. So no reason Thais destroy this area.

CARMICHAEL: Moeung Sonn says the traders at the market had spent substantial sums building up their stocks ahead of the Cambodian New Year in mid-April when many Cambodians visit the temple. But before they could come, the market was shelled and the traders lost everything. Thus the claim.

So does Moeung Sonn think the villagers will get compensation from the Thai government?

SONN: I think the Thais will pay. I think the Cambodian government don't drop this matter because these rockets came from Thailand. And so no reason why [Thailand] don't pay to Cambodian villagers.

CARMICHAEL: But compensation is only one aspect of the shelling. British lawyer Rupert Abbott is a director at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, a local NGO. Later this week his organisation will release a report on the incident and the applicability of international law to what happened.

Mr Abbott's report indicates that the Thai army's action did break international law.

ABBOTT: We do believe based on our investigations that Thailand has breached international humanitarian law. It's breached the Geneva Conventions. There were no soldiers in the village, it wasn't being used for military use - there were no weapons, no hardware, playing no military role. And it seemed that it was deliberately attacked. The three rockets fired all hit the market. It was then sprayed with machinegun fire when the civilians tried to put out the fire.

CARMICHAEL: Mr Abbott acknowledges that the Thai government might disagree with his report's findings, since it is based solely on Cambodian accounts.

ABBOTT: I am absolutely sure as you suggest that Thailand will dispute this account. We've been interviewing Cambodian villagers, and that's why a neutral organization like ASEAN needs to investigate this and get the Thai side of events.

CARMICHAEL: It isn't clear what Thailand thinks of all this since the spokesperson from the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was unavailable for comment. But as far as the Cambodian government is concerned, says information minister Khieu Kanharith, the market had no military value - he believes the shelling was deliberate and a gross violation of international law. But he says bilateral talks are a better way to solve the issue than involving ASEAN.

As for compensation, Khieu Kanharith says Phnom Penh is in favour of Thailand making payments to the villagers. And although he hasn't heard anything yet from Bangkok, he expects some gesture will be forthcoming. In the meantime, and with the rainy season fast approaching, Phnom Penh has provided housing materials for the 900 affected people allowing them to rebuild their homes at a new site 20 kilometres away. The government will also rebuild the market.

Observers have pointed out that the situation around the Preah Vihear temple often worsens when Thai political tensions rise - and Thai politics are still far from stable. It remains to be seen whether the events of early April mark the low point between Cambodia and Thailand over the border at the 900-year-old temple.

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