But as Cambodia begins to withdraw, foxholes and firing positions still dot the landscape
preah vihear temple – On the front lines of Preah Vihear, flanked by the earthen bunkers of Cambodian and Thai forces, sits a pair of makeshift picnic tables. And between them uniformed troops from the opposing sides mill around freely smoking cigarettes and escorting the occasional visitor to the site where the neighboring countries traded shots over the territory surrounding the 11th-century temple.
“We see them every day,” RCAF Lieutenant Mom Samnang said yesterday of the Thai soldiers just meters away. “Now it is ordinary, nothing new.”
As units of Cambodian troops stationed at the contentious border area have withdrawn, the general consensus is that peace has again come to the ancient temple, but whether that lasts is up to Thailand.
Military leaders said soldiers based at the foot of Preah Vihear mountain from Kompong Thom and Siem Reap provinces, as well as troops from Brigade 911 paratroop commandoes, pulled out by Sunday. Fifty percent of the personnel from the premier’s personal bodyguard unit have also left.
However, trenches, foxholes and fortified firing position still dot the landscape of the dense jungle and cliff-top temple, while soldiers stationed here still lug around assault rifles and shoulder-fired grenade launchers. Razor wire hangs haphazardly around the shuttered border checkpoint with Thailand.
Mr Samnang, the RCAF lieutenant, said although relations have settled down with their neighbor, none of the troops—Cambodian or Thai—living on the front lines have departed.
“They never withdraw, they just reshuffle their ranks once every three months,” he said of the Thai forces still stationed in the disputed areas of the border.
“For us we don’t patrol, we just standby,” he added.
To the west of the temple atop Phnom Trop Mountain, military staff there said no troop removal has occurred and the isolated headquarters on the mountain top appears to be developing into a self-sustainable operation.
“We didn’t see any Thai withdrawal; they are still here,” said RCAF Captain Chhum Chhoeun who is stationed at Phnom Trop with Thai soldiers stationed just 50 meters north of the Cambodian positions.
While crouching near the mountain’s edge yesterday he heard over his radio a report that Thai troops were observed repairing a trench.
“We both patrol around the front line,” he added.
There, soldiers live in wood and metal shacks surrounded by sandbags. A rack of assault rifles could be seen inside a dugout carved out of the mountain’s rock.
In fact, a motorized gondola suspended by steel cables runs equipment, food and troops up and down the top of the precipitous peak of Trop mountain. Construction on the contraption was finished about two weeks ago and supplies could be seen yesterday sliding up the cables to the RCAF troops.
“The withdrawal is not close to peace but we could say it is peaceful now,” he said.
The draw down of Cambodian forces came at the command of Prime Minister Hun Sen who called for the reduction at the border, saying that the relative calm at the frontier allowed for it and that troops were needed elsewhere to assist with farming and irrigation.
“He [the prime minister] wants both people living in happiness,” said RCAF Deputy Commander Chea Dara, who is in charge of military operations at the temple.
The premier—along with other military officials at the temple—said combatants would return if the situation at Preah Vihear worsened.
But, Mr Dara said, for the moment he and other commanders have met several times with Thai military leaders and added there is even the possibility of widening the scope of the troop reduction if the current calm holds.
“If the situation is still getting better, the withdrawal of the troops will go on,” he said. “In fact, we will fill in all of the trenches and do business together for development.”
When asked if peace was here to stay at the temple, Mr Dara said he could not answer the question.
“We don’t want any war but right now I can not talk about the future. It is up to the Thais,” he said.
As an example of the comparative calm, he ended his brief interview, saying he needed to get ready to meet his Thai military counterparts for dinner.