preah vihear temple – Signs of the intensity of Friday’s fighting at Preah Vihear temple between Thai and Cambodian troops are everywhere, from the destroyed market at the temple’s entrance way to the bullet and shrapnel marks in the stonework around the temple’s iconic first pavilion.
At Veal Entry the contested valley between the temple mountain and nearby Trop mountain, trees, their branches broken or trunks pierced, are the only evidence of the hour-long battle during which both sides traded heavy rocket, mortar and machine gun fire.
While Cambodian officials report that none of their troops were either killed or injured, it is difficult to discern fact from battlefield fiction regarding the number of Thai casualties. Reports from Thailand indicate that one solider died, but RCAF officials and ordinary soldiers believe the death toll to be far higher and the unofficial count at the temple among the Cambodians for their Thai adversaries is 22 dead and 30 injured.
Artillery was not used Friday, but in an unsettling prediction of the way things could deteriorate, at least four Russian-made tanks were deployed by Cambodian forces on Saturday morning a short distance from Kor 1 village at the base of Preah Vihear mountain.
Inspecting and tallying the latest damage to the temple on Sunday morning, chief of the heritage police at the temple, Oum Phirum, said there were at least 20 separate locations where stonework had been chipped by shrapnel and bullets.
“If Unesco doesn’t take urgent action the temple will be damaged further,” Oum Phirum said Sunday morning.
And it’s difficult to see how the temple won’t be damaged more extensively if clashes erupt again judging by the weaponry in trenches nearby the temple — an Armbrust anti-tank missile launcher was spotted in one dugout – which may indicate that commanders at Preah Vihear expect the on-again-off-again fighting to intensify.
Whereas Cambodian troops were living in tents up until late last year, they have now dug bunkers, reinforced with tree trunks and sandbags, at intervals almost the entire length of the winding mountain road leading to the temple. And, unlike last year, Cambodian troops are far better armed that just a few months ago. Large caliber machine guns, the type that can be used against aircraft, are now ubiquitous in the forest around the temple, along with powerful shoulder-fired and fixed-placed rocket launchers.
The Thai military, located across a narrow forested valley from the temple and the mountain road, have similarly upped their firepower, and RCAF soldiers interviewed told of not being able to raise their heads out of their bunkers during Friday’s hour-long battle due to ferocious machine-gun fire that strafed open areas on the temple’s northeast side.
“There were so many bullets we couldn’t stand up,” said Oh Chon, 36, a soldier stationed near the burned out market, which had been home to more than 200 small businesses before it was razed after being hit by several Thai mortars or rockets on Friday.
Vendor Chhun Leang, 54, was among those searching on Sunday through the blackened sheets of tin roofing and rubble that was left from the blaze. Chhun Leang said she lost everything in her stall: clothes, CDs, cigarettes, perfume, which she estimated was worth thousands of dollars.
A long-time vendor at the temple and a veteran of the border standoff, Chhun Leang said she had kept her business going and hadn’t removed her stock, because she didn’t believed the Thais would attack the site, particularly after both sides had met at lunch-time on Friday to calm the situation after the brief shooting earlier that day.
“When the talks were finalized they just hit the market to burn it down,” she said.
Throughout Saturday and early Sunday Cambodian troops were told to be on high alert for another possible clash, particularly at Veal Entry and Phnom Trop where officers reported that around 130 Thai commandos, who wear a distinctive red-beret, had been deployed.
Talks between local commanders on both sides had also been scheduled for Saturday morning in the Veal Entry area, but were cancelled after RCAF soldiers reportedly found three Claymore mines, which some suspected were part of a possible ambush in the disputed area, said RCAF Lieutenant Colonel Nou Sarath, commander of the forces at Veal Entry.
“Each time the Thais bring in new forces there is renewed fighting,” he said of the commandos’ deployment.
“They want the Veal Entry location because if they take here, it means Preah Vihear temple belongs to them,” he said, explaining that the “Eagle Field” valley dissects the access road to the temple and is the easiest point of access for forces entering from Thailand.
“They have two objectives: Veal Entry and Trop Mountain, because when the have the highest vantage point [on Trop] they can see everything and control everything,” he said.
Just before 11 am Sunday, Thai Major General Kanok Natera Kanachani and several deputies trekked to the pagoda near Preah Vihear to hold talks with RCAF Major General Srey Dek, chief of operations at the temple, and 911 Paratrooper commander Chap Pheakdei, along with RCAF Brigadier General Chea Keo.
All smiles, the military chiefs on both sides shook hands, and traded hearty banter mixed with some cutting barbs.
When Srey Dek asked Kanok why he had deployed commandoes to Veal Entry, the Thai general responded saying he hadn’t and the only red berets he saw were being worn by members of Cambodia’s 911 paratroopers, who had accompanied their commander Chap Pheakdei. The Thai commander then added: “If there were Thai commandoes here you would have heard them.”
Kanok continued in jest that there was no need for Thai and Cambodian troops to fight, adding that he and Srey Dek could have a one-on-one boxing match, but only once the rotund Srey Dek got down to his own weight class.
Srey Dek responded, saying that Thai troops had destroyed 200 homes when the market was burned down, to which Kanok retorted: “When soldiers fight it’s hard to control them.”
The back and forth continued for a while, during which Srey Dek told Kanok that talks over the border standoff were scheduled for Sunday evening in Phnom Penh between Prime Minister Hun Sen and a deputy prime minister from Thailand, whose name he did not provide. Srey Dek then expressed the wish that “national leaders” might “resolve the border issue.”
One senior RCAF official present for the pagoda talks said that Cambodian commanders have lost all faith in talking with their Thai military counterparts in the field meetings at Preah Vihear.
“They talk and fight,” the brigadier general, who asked not to be identified by name, said of the Thais. “They never do what they say.”
After the meeting, when asked to comment on the Thai general’s claim that there were no Thai commandoes deployed near Veal Entry, Srey Dek told a reporter: “Get a pair of binoculars and see for yourself.”