All Quiet At Temple, As Troops Withdraw

preah vihear temple – After more than two years of conflict between Thai and Cambodian troops at this 11th-century temple, it was almost hard to find a soldier here this weekend. Many trenches were empty, while only scraps of wood and ripped sandbags hinted at what had been a crowded front line.

Most Thai and Cambodian troops were quietly withdrawn from their positions around the World Heritage-listed temple on Dec 1, according to interviews with soldiers and a military official. That was also the last day that Wat Keo Sekha Kirisvarak, a nearby pagoda in disputed Cambodian-held territory, was visited by the 10 or so Thai soldiers who have hiked there daily since the troop buildup began in July 2008.

Ou Kimkhorn, deputy chief of staff for RCAF Division 3, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the situation at the border had “eased” because of the Dec 1 drawdown, which he said came about because of an agreement between the two governments and militaries. He declined to give the number of troops withdrawn.

“We cut down most of the soldiers and so did they. The situation has changed to how it used to be before July 15,” Mr Kimkhorn said, referring to July 15, 2008, when Cambodian officials detained three Thai protesters who jumped the locked border gate, triggering the troop buildup.

In a Dec 6 speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the “problem is solved” with Thailand, although he did not specifically mention troop movements near Preah Vihear temple. General Chea Dara, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but a notice posted outside his bunker at the temple appeared to confirm the withdrawal.

“This is where the Siam military invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008, and they withdrew at 10:30 am Dec 1, 2010,” read the notice. It also stated that Thai military officials would no longer be allowed to come to the pagoda.

Thai officials could not be reached yesterday, but have denied any troop withdrawals. Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, political spokesman for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a telephone interview Friday that troops would only be withdrawn if the market and any villagers living at the temple were removed, allowing the border demarcation process to continue.

That position was at odds with the reality on the ground this weekend. Monks at Wat Keo Sekha Kirisvarak said Thai soldiers had stopped coming to the pagoda this month after visiting every day since tension flared.

“They haven’t come here since Dec 1,” said 38-year-old monk Vitou Seylor, who has been at the pagoda for 10 years. Venerable Seylor said the unarmed soldiers used to come every morning and “just sit and rest” and then leave in the afternoon. Although he viewed the end of their visits with detachment, a group of nuns at the pagoda said they were very happy the Thai soldiers were gone.

As part of the new agreement between the Thai and Cambodian militaries, five unarmed soldiers from each side are stationed together near the still-closed border crossing, according to Mr Kimkhorn, who said they “sleep and eat together and cooperate along the border.”

These soldiers could be seen yesterday chatting with each other, lying in hammocks together and walking together to the nearby market to buy cigarettes. Members of the two groups are rotated in and out every day, according to a Cambodian soldier who declined to give his name.

Wooden steps were being built yesterday from the border gate, which is still covered in barbed wire, to the Cambodian market at the base of the temple’s great stone stairway. Workmen said the stairs would be finished within the week, and officials have said the border gate could open as early as next month.

“The Thai side delayed the time to next month, and we don’t know if they will agree next month. If they don’t, we have to postpone to the month after,” Mr Kimkhorn said of the opening.

Vendors at the market, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in an April firefight between the two nations’ troops, said business had dropped off after the recent withdrawal of Cambodian troops, who had been some of their main customers. They said the opening of the border gate would help make up for this loss.

“When they open the border gate, business will be quite good, because the tourists will come [from Thailand],” said 42-year-old vendor Sea Pheak. “I heard people saying that the border gate will be open, but I haven’t seen anything so far.”

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