Thailand and Cambodia began moving out their regular troops deployed around the Preah Vihear Temple area yesterday in compliance with an injunction issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for their readjustment within one year.
In Cambodia's Phrea Vihear province, elaborate troop withdrawal ceremonies were highlighted in a fanfare with hundreds of local and foreign members of the media invited to cover the event.
Cambodian news reports said 485 Cambodian army regulars had been withdrawn, with policemen in the same number replacing them.
Ambassadors and diplomats from 11 countries observed the ceremony, which also marked 4th anniversary of registration of the Phrea Vihear temple as a Unesco-endorsed World Heritage site.
The events were pakced with entertainment shows, foods and drinks provided to the departing troops and guests.
The Cambodian event was overhyped and widely promoted and reported, with a large number of Asean flags being decorated at troop departure site and people in identical t-shirts and caps lining up to wave goodbye to departing troops.
The ceremony on the Thai side, however, was somewhat modest, with senior Army officers reviewing a force of 200 Border Patrol policemen that would take over from Royal Thai Army regulars, and greeting them individually.
The personnel reported to be deployed in place of Cambodian army regulars are defined as border patrol policemen, World Heritage site policemen, armed Phrea Vihear temple organisation crew and armed tourism police, numbering in around 300, a Thai military source said.
There are also reportedly a number of soldiers in civilian clothes stationed in Wat Kaew Sikkha Khiri Sarawa, located in the temple compound.
Thai Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat said 200 Border Patrol policemen, half from a Sakhon Nakhon outpost and the other from an Udon Thani base, had been deployed in areas around the temple site in Si Sa Ket's Kantharalak district, replacing a company of Army paramilitary rangers, the 23th Ranger Company.
He said there was no loss of Thai soils or sovereignty in this troop readjustment by both countries, responding to a number of locals who rallied in protest of the change.
During a ceremony seeing off the 200 Thai Border Patrol policemen to their outposts, reporters asked Sukamphol about them not seeing Thai Army regulars withdrawn physically from their existing outposts, Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha was quicker to give the answer:
"Why? You want the Army to withdraw the troops openly and visibly for you all to see. Why must troop withdrawal be done openly and visibly?". He did not elaborate.
Responding to a question about Cambodian infrastructures including Wat Kaew Sikkha Khiri Sarawa in the temple compound, Yuthasak said negotiations aiming at them moving out would be held. "It's commonly known that their people have encroached on illegally," he added.
A deputy government spokesman, Anusorn Iamsa-ard, said there would be soon "good news" about two Thai activists in Cambodian custdy - Weera Somkwankid and Ratree Phiphatthanaphaiboon. "There have been negotiations between Thai and Cambodian authorities about the releases [of Weera and Ratree] all along."
Both activists, who had campaigned against the Phue Thai Party’s handling of the Phrea Vihear temple dispute allegedly in favour of Cambodia, were arrested on December 29, 2010 for illegal entry and taken into custody since. Weera was handed an eight-year term while Ratree were sentenced for six years.
Around 200 locals living in Kantharalak district yesterday rallied in protest of troop withdrawal, and vowed to soon meet with Sukamphol in Bangkok to submit their letter of protest and fight on to protest against the troop withdrawal.
Democrat Party spokesman Chawanont Intharakomalsut called on the Yingluck government to assign Border Police policemen to all outposts previously stationed by Thai troops.
He also asked the Cambodian government to relocate communities, Wat Kaew and markets out of the water ridgeline under the 2453 BE MOU, before Indonesia observers enter the area and start their observations and verify the troop withdrawal.