Thailand, Cambodia holds talks on temple row

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand, July 21 (Reuters) - Thailand and Cambodia began high-level talks on Monday aimed at resolving a military stand-off over the disputed Preah Vihear temple on their joint border.

After a week of diplomatic sparring and a build-up of troops, expectations for a breakthrough were low, but both sides said they wanted to ease tensions in a dispute that has regional neighbours worried it could turn violent.

"We believe they will agree to our reasonable offer which will help ease the tension along the border," Thai Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niumpradit told reporters before meeting Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh.

"We hope they will have a similar offer that we can accept," Boonsrang said, without giving details of the Thai proposal.

The two met in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, about 350 km (215 miles) from the 11th century temple that has been a source of tension for decades after it was bestowed by an international court to Cambodia in 1962.

Hundreds of Thai and Cambodian troops have faced each other at the temple since last Tuesday, backed up by several thousand more troops and heavy artillery on both sides.

In Phnom Penh, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith did not expect a swift end to the stand-off, but "at least it will ease some of the tension because both sides have agreed to sit down at the negotiating table."

At the heart of the dispute is a 4.6 sq km (1.8 sq mile) area around the temple, which sits on a jungle-clad escarpment that forms a natural boundary, that is claimed by both nations.

Cambodia complained to the U.N. Security Council on Friday about Thailand's violation of Cambodia's "sovereignty and territorial integrity", but did not ask the U.N. to intervene.

"While Cambodia exercises maximum restraint to avoid armed confrontation, we cannot ignore that Thai military provocation is to create a de facto 'overlapping area' that legally does not exist on Cambodia soil," Phnom Penh's U.N. ambassador Sea Kosal said.


Thai troops moved into the disputed area last Tuesday after three Thai protesters were detained by Cambodian soldiers as they tried to plant a Thai flag on the temple.

The dispute has revived memories of a 2003 spat over Cambodia's world famous Angkor Wat temple, which saw a nationalist mob setting fire to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, and worried neighbours.

The 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged its fellow members Thailand and Cambodia to show "utmost caution and restraint" and offered to help resolve the impasse.

"They are hoping that the two sides will find amicable resolution to the situation," Surin Pitsuan, ASEAN Secretary-General, told reporters at the start of the annual ASEAN ministerial meeting in Singapore.

Analysts say domestic politics in Thailand, where the temple is known as Khao Pra Viharn, have played a key role in fuelling the border dispute.

Preah Vihear's listing as a World Heritage site this month triggered a political uproar in Bangkok, where the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) accused the government of selling out Thailand's history by initially backing the listing.

The PAD, a coalition of activists and royalists, is waging a street campaign against Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whom they accuse of being a proxy of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a coup in 2006.

"The PAD will use any tool, any instrument to bring down the Samak government. Khao Pra Viharn is a casualty of Thailand's domestic political crisis," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a foreign affairs lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Ek Madra in PHNOM PENH) (Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alex Richardson)