News / Asia

Thailand Working to Free Citizens Detained After Illegally Entering Cambodia

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, right, arrives for a bilateral meeting with Cambodian counterpart at Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 30 Dec 2010
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, right, arrives for a bilateral meeting with Cambodian counterpart at Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 30 Dec 2010
Ron Corben

The Thai government is stepping up efforts to obtain the release of seven Thais who crossed into Cambodia illegally. Thailand's prime minister denies reports he sent the seven to the disputed border area.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanaygorn says officials are doing all they can to have the seven Thais returned home.

"We are determined to help these Thai. This is our first priority. We would like to have them returned, of course," Wattanaygorn said. "We do respect the Cambodian process and sovereignty and the law and the justice process. We hope that if the case is not moving forward [to the courts] then these people could be released."

Cambodian troops detained the group on December 29. They were led by Panich Vikitsreth, a parliament member who sits on a government committee that handles border issues with Cambodia.

Panitan dismissed media reports that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had ordered Panich to the border. Panitan says the prime minister was only informed after the fact that Panich was travelling close to the border area.

He says the foreign ministry is still seeking full information about the location where the group was arrested, which was along the border in Sa Kaeo province, 245 kilometers east of Bangkok.

In a video seen on the Internet, Panich is seen walking toward the Cambodian border.

Speaking on a mobile phone, he says he crossed into Cambodian territory and to inform the prime minister's secretary, Somkiat Krongwatanasuk.

Panich calls on his assistant to inform Abhisit they are already inside Cambodia and to call Somkiat if are any problems arise. He says they have crossed the border and trying to inspect a border marker that is in Thai territory, but he says is an area now occupied by Cambodian soldiers.

The group then walked into a nearby village, which the members claim formerly belonged to Thailand, and apparently were detained by Cambodian troops there.

A nationalist group planned a protest at the border, but the Thai army says it will prevent any gatherings in the area. The Sa Kaeo governor also warned the protesters could create problems for local people.

The nationalists claim the seven were detained in Thailand. They accuse Cambodia, also known as Kampuchea, of land encroachment. Werasak Samrit is a leader of the nationalist group, and spoke at a rally Monday in Bangkok.

"Kampuchea say Thai people entered her territory, but actually it is in Thai territory, actually it [is] Thai territory," Werasak Samrit said. "We are waiting for the government to solve this problem. I would like to ask the [Cambodian] government to release our Thai people, no condition because that [is] the Thai area, but the government not accept that."

Relations between Thailand and Cambodia had been improving in recent months, after two years of tension. Relations began to deteriorate in 2008 over a dispute involving land around a 900-year-old Hindu temple on the border. They worsened last year over visits to Cambodia by Thailand's fugitive former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is wanted at home on corruption charges.

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