Saturday, October 18, 2008

October 18, 2008; Thai PM seeks direct talks over Cambodia border row

KANTARALAK, Thailand - Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said on Saturday he would seek face-to-face talks with Cambodian leader Hun Sen after a border clash near a 900-year-old temple this week.

"I am looking for the right time to talk with him. We should have an opportunity to talk," Somchai told reporters after visiting Thai troops facing Cambodian forces along the border.

The Thai leader echoed Hun Sen's comments on Friday that outside mediation was not needed to resolve the dispute.

"This is an issue between Thailand and Cambodia. We should not let other countries get involved," Somchai said.

Both sides have sought to ease tensions since three Cambodian soldiers were killed in Wednesday's 40-minute firefight. Two Cambodians and seven Thais were wounded.

On Saturday, a Thai soldier died after slipping while on patrol and accidently shooting himself, an army spokesman said.

The armies have agreed to conduct joint border patrols and to hold more talks on reducing their forces around the Hindu temple, a source of border tension for generations.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled Cambodia for more than two decades, said on Friday the stand-off would not escalate into a wider and more serious conflict.

Some analysts link the eruption of fighting on the border to the political instability that has roiled Thailand for the past three years, and reached another climax this week when Somchai faced calls from his own generals to quit.

Army chief Anupong Paochinda's televised interview on Thursday, in which he said Somchai should step down after bloody clashes between police and anti-government protesters last week, ignited fresh coup rumours two years after former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a bloodless putsch.

But Somchai refused on Friday to resign or call a snap election, saying Anupong was expressing "one opinion".

Somchai said an investigation of the Oct. 7 street clash, which killed two protesters and injured nearly 500, would be completed in 15 days and decide who was responsible.

Analysts read Anupong's remarks as an attempt by the army, which is under pressure from the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), to undermine Somchai so much that he jumps without the need for a full-blown coup.

"As expected, (Somchai's) response puts the ball straight back in the military's court," the Nation newspaper said in an editorial on Saturday.

Somchai, Thaksin's brother-in-law and a political novice, came to power in September after a court removed his predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, for hosting a cooking show on commercial television while in office.

The political crisis dates back to 2005 when the PAD, which has the explicit backing of Queen Sirikit, launched street protests against Thaksin. It has meandered through a coup to elections and back to protests and shows no signs of resolution.

Even if Somchai did call a snap election, lingering rural support for Thaksin would be likely to return a broadly pro-Thaksin government, putting it on a collision course once again with the royalist and military elite in Bangkok.

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