10/29/2008, 00.00
CAMBODIA - THAILAND
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Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest countries, doubles military spending

It's about 25% of the new budget. The intention is to match up better against Thailand in the dispute over the temple of Preah Vihear, a World Heritage site. Meanwhile, recent fighting has caused damage to the 900-year-old sculptures.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Cambodia is doubling its military spending to 500 million dollars, after the recent conflict on the border with Thailand, over the temple of Preah Vihear. Most of the country's population lives beneath the poverty level (less than a dollar a day) and needs international aid. Meanwhile, a joint visit to the temple is scheduled for November 7, with Cambodian and the United Nations authorities, to check the damage caused by the armed conflict.

Cheam Yeap, head of the finance commission of the national Cambodian assembly, says that next week voting will be held on the new state budget, with military spending at 25% of the total. "This incident has awoken us to the need for our soldiers to be better equipped. We cannot sit and watch Thai troops encroach on our border," Yeap says. "Our army needs to be more organised, better trained, with newer bases and well-fed troops."

Since August, the two armies have been squaring off near the 900-year-old temple of Preah Vihear, which UNESCO designated as a World Heritage site in July. Both countries claim ownership of the temple, although in 1962 the International Court of Justice ruled that it belongs to Cambodia. In recent fighting, the sculpture of a Hindu goddess was damaged by shrapnel, and both sides are blaming each other.

It is estimated that there are 100,000 soldiers in the Cambodian army, which makes it about a third the size of the Thai army, but it is a substantial force for one of the poorest countries in Asia. For years, international donors have been asking Cambodia to demobilize thousands of veterans, including many former guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge, in order to free up funds for health and education. Instead, over the past two weeks another 3,000 men have been enlisted, although Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterates that he wants to seek a negotiated solution with Bangkok.

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