Thailand Cambodia border dispute over temple

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There have been heated exchanges between Thailand and Cambodia over an ancient temple on their border. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, rejecting Thai claims. Now Cambodia's World Heritage bid reignited Thai resentment and there have been small armed clashes in the area during the past few years. Mary Kay Magistad reports.

MARCO WERMAN: And now to another part of the world where two countries are at odds. Thailand and Cambodia have long argued over who owns an ancient temple on their border. They've even exchanged gunfire over it. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And this week, Thailand threatened to quit UNESCO if it recognized Cambodia's right to manage the temple and the land around it. Today, UNESCO responded with a decision of sorts. The World's Mary Kay Magistad has more.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Centuries ago, the Khmer empire controlled large parts of what is now Thailand, Burma and Laos. But then, wars and territory were lost, and some of the exquisite Khmer temples built at the height of the empire fell into foreign hands. Still, Cambodia has always considered the 11th century temple Preah Vihear to be its, and its alone. That's how it's portrayed in this Cambodian documentary. But many in Thailand feel differently.

TUL SITTISOMWANG: We think the land is Thai, it's not Cambodia's.

MAGISTAD: Tul Sittisomwang joined a protest in front of UNESCO's office in Bangkok this week, calling on UNESCO not to give Cambodia management rights over Preah Vihear and the area around it. He admits there were demarcation treaties almost 100 years ago between what was then Siam and Cambodia's French colonial rulers, but he claims the maps were wrong, and the temple never should have gone to Cambodia.

SITTISOMWANG: At the time we could not say anything, because France is so powerful at that time.

MAGISTAD: Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva met with leaders of the protest earlier this week, and promised to stand up to UNESCO. Panitan Wattiniagorn is a government spokesman.

PANITAN WATTINIAGORN: Our position is to work with Cambodia on disputes before we can move forward, to work together to preserve the area.

MAGISTAD: But the other side on Thailand's roiling political landscape looks with skepticism on this whole issue. Sean Boonpracong has served as a spokesman for the ?Red Shirts,? the group that occupied Bangkok's streets for almost two months, sometimes violently, calling for a change of government. Boonpracong thinks the prime minister is stirring up an old and settled issue, for political gain.

SEAN BOONPRACONG: It's an issue of the elite that want to demonize the neighbors, to contest an issue that we consider all done with.

MAGISTAD: Soldiers from the Thai and Cambodian sides have been facing off at Preah Vihear for two years. But Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, doubts at this point that there'll be more than a war of words.

KHIEU KANHARITH: You have war of words, but you have Thai businessmen working here. They don't feel any hate against Thai people.

MAGISTAD: But some may feel resentment. Some Cambodians complain about how Thai border patrols have moved the border markers inward over the years. Some remember how in 1979, Thai troops bussed about 40,000 Cambodian refugees to the cliff on which the Preah Vihear temple is perched, and forced them at gunpoint to climb down into minefields, or get shot. Some 3,000 died. After all this, some in Cambodia feel passionately that Preah Vihear must remain Cambodian, just as some Thais feel passionately that it must be Thai. UNESCO, caught in the middle, has decided to call a time out for a year, and let the two countries try to sort out their territorial differences. Differences they have not managed to resolve over the past century. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Bangkok.