choam ksan, Preah Vihear province – The Ministry of Defense yesterday denied Thai media reports claiming Thailand and Cambodia had reached an agreement during “informal talks” to withdraw troops from around Preah Vihear temple in December.
“Only when Indonesian observers come and both sides withdraw at the same time” would any pullback occur, Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat said.
On Thursday, the Bangkok Post cited Thai Defense Minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa as saying that both sides had agreed to withdraw in December after a meeting of the General Border Committee (GBC)—a body of Thai and Cambodian military commanders that meets intermittently to discuss security issues along their shared border.
Lt Gen Sucheat dismissed the claim that a date for the next meeting of the GBC had even been set.
“We have no information from Thailand to date. We have sent them everything, all the documents, in order to set up the GBC and are waiting for them,” he said.
“I hope it will be soon. We have a lot of subjects to discuss.”
Thai Army spokesman Colonel Veerachon Sukondhadhpatipak said all the details of withdrawal still had to be worked out at the next meeting of the GBC.
“The details of how we will adjust the troop numbers have to be discussed at the General Border Committee,” he said. “It will depend on the outcome of the meeting.”
Col Veerachon said Thailand hoped to have the meeting this month, but, like Mr Sucheat, knew of no set date.
Foremost among the subjects to be discussed at the GBC will be compliance-or lack thereof-with a July 18 ruling by the UN’s International Court of Justice that ordered both sides to withdraw from a newly drawn demilitarized zone around the border-hugging Preah Vihear Temple. While the court order called on both countries to withdraw immediately, the two sides have stalled, disagreeing on exactly how to proceed.
Cambodia wants observers from Indonesia on the ground first. Thailand has said the observers should move in only after the troops have left.
Even after a Cambodia-friendly government took over in Bangkok in July, the troops stayed.
Though Cambodia has withdrawn several brigades from Preah Vihear’s border with Thailand, the army says they were pulled back from areas outside the planned demilitarized zone. Soldiers still feature prominently on both sides of the border.
And if a withdrawal is imminent, news of it hasn’t spread to Preah Vihear either.
Soldiers and commanders interviewed yesterday said they hadn’t heard any rumor of the sort.
Lieutenant General Srey Dek, Division 3 RCAF commander and the provisional commander at Preah Vihear temple, said that he was not aware of any order from either the Defense Ministry or Prime Minister Hun Sen to withdraw. Regardless, he added, his troops had been readied for withdrawal since July.
In October, the National Police even announced that it had finished training 400 police officers to eventually take over for Cambodian troops at the temple.
“The leaders have not yet commanded us to withdraw. We have already prepared for withdrawing, but I have not heard anything about a withdrawal,” Lt Gen Dek said. “I did not know about a GBC meeting, either,” he added.
Soldiers at the border yesterday seemed eager to leave their positions.
“I’m just waiting for word from my commander. If they ask to withdraw, I would immediately go home to my wife,” said Duong Sokhun, a lieutenant in Brigade 3.
For those stationed at Preah Vihear temple, the withdrawal cannot come soon enough. Since the last round of fighting around the temple in February, much of their energy is now devoted to figuring out how to pass the time.
“It’s boring. It’s true that it is boring,” said Lt Sokhun. “But this is the job of a soldier. This is our duty.”
In many ways, the temple is still very much a war zone. Crevasses in the mountainside are packed with sandbags and soldiers with binoculars diligently scan the horizon and log activity along the Thai-side of the border. Citing security concerns, everyone is wary about speaking with reporters.
But if it is a war zone, it is one that appears to be on its last legs. No one carries guns. Army wives dressed in fatigues wander the grounds with babies slung low on their hips. A few tourists wonder around the grounds of the temple.
“Here everyone is hoping to go home very soon,” said Inth Bora, a soldier with the 911 paratrooper brigade.
Military officials yesterday declined to give figures on how many soldiers were stationed within the demilitarized zone, but soldiers said more than half of their numbers had withdrawn from the temple complex itself in recent months. Fewer than 50 could be seen milling around the main areas.
“It’s lonely. People come here during the day time, but then they leave,” Lieutenant General Chin Chorn said. He has been stationed at the temple for four-and-a-half years. He speaks to his family three times a day. He studies English. He prays for the withdrawal.
“I hope it will be soon, it’s very difficult to stay here long term. It affects the soldiers’ health. Here it is relatively easy, but for those stationed in the forest it is very difficult and unhealthy,” he said. “Both sides’ soldiers don’t want to stay.”
A half kilometer away, beneath a small hut set just within Cambodian territory, a group of Cambodian and Thai soldiers dined together.
“We eat lunch everyday,” said one of the Thai soldiers speaking in Khmer, before switching to Thai: “kin kao” (eat food).
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)