preah vihear temple – While all hope is on today’s meeting in Thailand preventing a military confrontation at Preah Vihear temple, RCAF and government officials interviewed Saturday and Sunday were pessimistic about the outcome and said they are preparing for an armed confrontation.
Officials vowed, however, that it would not be Cambodian forces that fire the first shots.
Thai troops continued to stream into the forest area around the temple and the Cambodian pagoda, where hundreds of Thai border soldiers and special forces are now based. Likewise, Cambodian troops continue to arrive from all over the country—some from as far away as Kampot province.
Across the narrow valley that separates the countries, the Thai military has deployed five artillery pieces, Cambodian officials said.
On the Cambodian side, what appeared to be an RCAF truck-mounted Katyusha rocket launcher, better known as a “Stalin Organ,” was seen Saturday in Kompong Thom province heading in the direction of Preah Vihear, though RCAF officials at the temple Sunday denied it was on the way to the border.
Brigadier General Chea Keo, deputy commander of RCAF’s military region 4, said Sunday from his field station near the temple that Thai troops appear to be preparing on their side of the border to open a second entry on the frontier in a bid to occupy the Cambodian market area at the base of the temple’s staircase. The market area is the site of the border gate with Thailand, which has been locked since June 22 and in more recent days coiled with razor wire. National military policemen, 300 of whom arrived at the temple on Friday, carried dozens more coils of razor wire to the market Sunday morning in apparent expectation of a new breech by Thai forces.
Chea Keo said the situation had not changed and that both sides continued to remain peaceful but also to build their capabilities ahead of today’s meeting, the outcome of which he didn’t feel optimistic about.
“If they dared to shoot within the temple it would be an abuse of international law. Though we do not know for sure if they will respect [international law] as they have already invaded Cambodian territory,” Chea Keo said, adding that the best that might be achieved at today’s meeting is a “long-term standoff.”
On Saturday, Council of Minister’s media officer Phay Siphan once again addressed the Thai troops at the temple, this time through a public address system, with a Thai translator implored the troops to leave the area, saying they should not be prepared to die for the politicians who had unlawfully sent them to invade Cambodian territory.
“I will inform your relatives, your parents and sons that the black uniforms [Thai border troops] were used by their politicians, and they died for nothing,” Phay Siphan said through the translator.
“I would like to thank Prime Minister Hun Sen who has told people to be patient” he added. “We want the black uniforms to be soldiers and not thieves who steal Cambodian land.”
Leading a delegation of military and police attaches from the Chinese, French, US and Vietnamese embassies in Phnom Penh, National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha on Saturday said he was surprised to see that the situation was calm given that the well-armed troops from both sides were sometimes stationed just meters apart.
Sao Sokha said the embassy representatives had traveled to the temple to assess the situation firsthand, though he would not divulge their names, and the officials themselves declined to comment. Sao Sokha also declined to comment on whether the arrival of the embassy officials indicated international support for Cambodia in its dispute with Thailand.
“When I was in Phnom Penh I thought that there was tension, but now that I am here I see there is none…. Both sides are afraid of dying. No one wants to fight,” he said, adding that the problem was the result of “dreaming” on the part of Thailand. “Now their dream has caused a problem,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to see a confrontation take place.
In the chess-like nature of the military build up, Sao Sokha’s visit was matched by the arrival on Saturday afternoon of three high-ranking members of the Thai special forces, who visited their troops at the occupied pagoda. One of the Thai colonels, who declined to give his name, simply said the situation was “normal.”
Later on Saturday, a force of nearly 100 border and special forces troops trekked under the weight of full gear across the border to the pagoda. Thai troops also deployed along the edge of the 300-meter long valley opposite the temple’s entrance steps, the first time that Thai troops had taken up position there.
Despite the military build up, tourists, local families, and curious Cambodians from afar a field as Siem Reap town continue to visit Preah Vihear, as much to see the temple as the “invading” Thai forces.
Members of the recently-established Khmer Civilization Foundation also visited the pagoda on Saturday to distribute medicines to troops and locals, while a group of around a dozen young people held a rousing sing-along as darkness fell, marching in step around the first temple, atop which the Cambodian flag sits, singing the well-known nationalist song from the 1960s “Golden Land.” They also took to song again on Sunday beneath the flag, singing Sin Sisamuth favorites “Ou Battambang” and “Saturday Night.”
The 1960s songs being belted out by the young nationalists fit well with some of the equipment of the Cambodia troops, whose abundant but ill-kept weaponry pre-dated even Sin Sismuth’s time. By contrast, the Thai forces sported a truly international range of modern assault rifles and grenades.
RCAF commanders, however, say it’s not the weaponry that will decide the conflict, should one occur, but the fighting spirit of the troops, which they claim to have in spades compared to the Thai forces. And according to several commanders, between 40 percent and 70 percent of the soldiers stationed at Preah Vihear are former Khmer Rouge fighters who have years of experience in the terrain of this part of the country and are tested in guerilla warfare.
“We have the experience and the strategy,” said Chea Keo, who was once a former Khmer Rouge military commander. “For national pride we must protect the country,” he said, adding that through the efforts of former Khmer Rouge troops currently protecting Preah Vihear temple “the wounds [of the past] might be healed.”
On a daily basis since early last week, young and old RCAF troops have trudged up the punishingly steep 4-km mountain road to the temple. Many are wearing only flip-flops and mismatched uniforms, and are armed with little more than a rifle and single clip of bullets or a B-40 rocket launcher with old string for a shoulder strap. Meanwhile, across the border, well-dress dressed Thai troops are ferried to their drop off points in mini-buses and new military trucks.
But amid the Cambodian bravado and tales of centuries past Thai defeats at the hands of the Khmer empire, many conversations with rank and file Cambodian soldiers end with the note that, if Thailand were to attack, the UN and international community must surely come to Cambodia’s assistance.
But in the face of conflict, the dark humor persists, with Cambodian troops calling out in Khmer to the Thai troops across the narrow valley to “Nyam Bay,” which basically means “come eat rice” in Khmer. Facing off against Thai troops from the province of Surin, which has a large number of ethnic Khmers, the odd response is shouted back, also in Khmer: “I’ve eaten already.”
Regardless of the outcome of today’s meeting, Hang Soth, secretary-general of the Preah Vihear Authority, the government body that is responsible for the site, said that Cambodian troops will not be the first to fire.
“I don’t know what the Thais are considering, but I can say that the Cambodian side will be disciplined and will not open fire first,” Hang Soth said. “We will try our best to maintain peace and the relationship between both governments. I do hope we have some result, but I don’t know how much hope I have,” he said.
As a more developed country with well-educated people, Thailand should respect both international law and agreements of friendship between the 10 members of Asean, Hang Soth said.
“Should members of Asean help each other, or fight each other?” he asked. “If there is a confrontation and conflict, the old [historical hatred] will come up and provoke even bigger problems,” he added. “We want nothing but peace.”