Accessibility links

Cambodian PM Wraps up Visit to Controversial Border Area

  • Robert Carmichael

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has concluded a visit to an iconic temple on his country's northern border with Thailand, where soldiers from both nations have clashed repeatedly over the past 18 months.

Relations between Cambodia and Thailand have worsened steadily over the past two years, and Hun Sen's visit Saturday to the northern border temple of Preah Vihear will not have helped.

A government spokesman claimed Friday that Hun Sen was making a cultural visit to the 11th century temple.

But given the tensions between the two countries over the border area near the temple, and Hun Sen's burgeoning friendship with former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, some observers say this was always going to be seen as highly political.

Chhaya Hang is head of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a non-governmental organization in Phnom Penh that focuses on democracy, human rights and political awareness-raising.

"There could be an element of that, but if you think about it, it's a very hot issue at the moment and a very risky one," he said. "I mean, there are two militaries facing each other on the border and you want to visit on your side and try to make sense of what is going on in terms of culture - I don't think so. I think it's a political statement."

Preah Vihear temple was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962. That ruling has long annoyed Thai nationalists who have used the issue to stoke tensions.

The area around the temple has been a flashpoint for almost two years now, and a number of soldiers have died in firefights in the area in that time.

Cambodia's borders, which are in the process of being demarcated, remain a highly-sensitive topic domestically.

Earlier this month the leader of the opposition was jailed for two years in absentia after he removed six wooden border posts placed by Vietnam - a staunch supporter of Hun Sen's government.

The opposition had claimed the posts were placed on Cambodian soil.

Chhaya Hang says the visit also allows Hun Sen to show his domestic audience that he remains strong on border issues by standing up to Thailand.

It also sends a message to Bangkok. "That Cambodia's not backing out of this political game and not giving up any more land, and they are fed up," he said.

It is not clear whether Hun Sen will head back to Phnom Penh on Saturday or visit other areas along the border later this weekend. What is clear is that his visit will not have helped to mend fences with Bangkok.

But Hun Sen has his eye on a future Thai government, perhaps one in which Thaksin Shinawatra is involved. Mending fences with the current administration in Bangkok is clearly not on his agenda.