Cambodian officials flatly denied yesterday that children appearing in a newspaper photograph dressed in camouflage fatigues, hats and military boots were serving as soldiers near the Preah Vihear temple.
Instead they said the five boys, between the ages of 9 to 13 years old, are merely sons of troops based at the temple and donned the uniforms to welcome Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and others who visited the militarized border area on Sunday.
“They are not soldiers but their fathers are RCAF soldiers based at Preah Vihear temple headquarters and they got the uniforms from the market in Kor Muoy village,” said RCAF Captain Men Saravuth based on Trop Mountain, which is nearby the temple.
Mr Saravuth said the foreign minister, who visited for about three hours and met with soldiers as well as provided donations, gave each boy $40 during the visit.
RCAF Lieutenant Colonel Chan Sokhon said soldiers taught the group of boys how to sing military songs and parade in formation for the delegation of foreign ministry officials, but the young boys’ involvement did not go beyond that.
“They look smart during the military exercise at the base of RCAF headquarters, we did not teach them but they are very smart at military exercises,” Mr Saravuth added.
A media blog critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party posted an entry yesterday featuring a picture of the boys in military fatigues and said it appeared Cambodia was using child soldiers at the Cambodia-Thai border.
The photograph featuring the boys on Trop Mountain appeared in yesterday’s issue of the Khmer-language newspaper, Koh Santepheap Daily, and the photograph’s caption stated that the foreign minister me with soldiers but did not make any distinction between the children and the adults in the shot. The accompanying article also made no reference to the children.
Brigadier General Yim Pim, commander of the 8th Brigade, said the boys are not currently enrolled in school but stated, “We will send them to school at Kor Muoy village in Choam Ksan district.”
RCAF military commanders explained last year that due to the lengthy time that soldiers have spent deployed at Preah Vihear temple, wives and children of poor soldiers have traveled to live with their men, the main breadwinner, on the frontlines. Wives and children following husbands and fathers into battle was also common during the civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry who accompanied the minister on Sunday, said the boys showed an aptitude for martial training based on their brief presentation for the visiting dignitaries.
“The live with their parents at the frontier so they should know how to escape if there is an incident,” Mr Kuong said.