preah vihear temple – Standing in a small mountain of spent shells as he oiled his heavy machine gun near the first temple in the Preah Vihear complex, RCAF soldier Chok Ravy was philosophical about the hourlong battle on Oct 15.
The 43-year-old, who has been in the army for as long as he can remember, said he fired the massive gun for more than an hour at the Thai frontlines less than 300 meters away.
The Thai soldiers in the valley below responded with bullets and several mortar shells that landed in the rocks around the bunker that Chok Ravy has called home since the standoff with Thailand began in mid-July. One of those mortars, he claimed, overshot his position and landed near the temple’s stairway, causing minor damage.
Looking over the green tents of the Thai paratroopers and border rangers, which he had raked with gunfire, Chok Ravy said it wasn’t right to talk about killing or those who may have died.
But, he added, “When you splash water, everyone get hits by a little.”
Behind his bunker, Chok Ravy has planted a small pumpkin patch, and the tennis-ball-size vegetable is a few weeks away from being edible. The pumpkin, Chok Ravy joked, will likely be ready to eat before Thailand and Cambodia have settled their differences.
In the meantime, Chok Ravy and other troops said they are expecting the situation to get worse before it gets better.
While the opposing troops in the valley around Preah Vihear are resettling into uncomfortably close company after Wednesday’s fighting, the real military buildup is taking place several kilometers back from the so-called frontline.
On the Thai side, tanks, armored cars and artillery have been amassed, while on the Cambodian side an estimated 1,000 members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit are digging protective bunkers in the shadow of Katyusha rocket launchers and artillery guns.
On Thursday, Thai air force fighter jets made their supersonic presence known in Thai airspace around the temple, while one RCAF commander claimed that a couple of weeks ago the fighters had flown high above Cambodian territory.
On Saturday afternoon, RCAF trucks hauled anti-aircraft guns on the road that leads from Sra’em town to Preah Vihear mountain.
Cambodian military commanders said they don’t expect Thai forces to adhere for long to an agreement reached Thursday following Wednesday’s firefight, which started in the area known as Veal Entry, or “Eagle Field.”
Thai commanders said after Thursday’s meeting that both sides had agreed to joint patrols in the flash point area on the mountain, but the next day RCAF Commander in Chief Ke Kim Yan soundly refuted that such a deal was reached.
Talks aimed at resolving the border dispute scheduled for Tuesday have been postponed, Agence France-Presse reported officials from both sides as saying Sunday. Senior army representatives had been due to meet in Siem Reap, but negotiations have been put off until later in the week, according to AFP.
Deputy Defence Minister General Neang Phat said he expected the meeting to occur Thursday morning, AFP reported.
During an hourlong meeting of military chiefs at Preah Vihear temple Friday, which was also attended by RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Meas Sophea, Ke Kim Yan told the assembled generals to get their men to dig in deeper on the mountain. One of the three RCAF soldiers who died during Wednesday’s clash was shot as he hunkered down in a too-shallow foxhole. By Friday afternoon, deeper foxholes and trenches were noticeable on the mountain.
Talks between both sides continued Saturday at the frontline, with RCAF’s commander of operations at the temple, Lieutenant General Srey Dek, and his deputies meeting with Colonel Chayan Huaysoungnern, the commander of the Thai forces in the disputed valley.
Sitting at a table made of bamboo scavenged from the surrounding forest, the commanders were mostly smiles and handshakes for the accompanying reporters, and, importantly, the dozens of troops on both sides standing just meters away. Continuing to communicate closely and not doing anything to inflame the situation would keep the peace, both sides agreed.
Srey Dek told Chayan that since the Oct 15 fighting the commanders on both sides “understood” each other better, but their troops now resented each other more. Srey Dek also noted that many of the Thai paratroopers were now equipped with Kevlar body armor.
Chayan said the body armor was nothing unusual, just a “new trend,” adding that “we have to have good communications, like brothers and sisters.”
Srey Dek said Thai soldiers should keep out of Veal Entry but conceded to Chayan’s request that if there are going to be any patrols, then both sides should participate.
The talks wrapped up with both men briefly walking hand-in-hand, accompanied by their entourage of deputies, among the green tents of the frontline, though on the periphery of the group wary Thai and Cambodian troops stood with their assault weapons lowered but at the ready.
Sitting in one of those tents, positioned one meter from a Thai paratrooper’s tent, RCAF Corporal Lok Set, 42, said that during last week’s clash he had fired about 20 bullets from his AK-47 rifle at his Thai neighbors and enemies. He had also lobbed a few Chinese-made grenades, he said.
Lok Set said he had been in the forest for three months, and it probably wouldn’t be long until he was shooting again. It’s not personal, just a matter of territorial integrity, he said, noting that after last week’s clash, troops on both sides had made up afterwards.
“It was like a movie. They shouted, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, we are moving out the injured,’” Lok Set said.
“After the shooting stopped, we came out and shook hands,” he added.