preah vihear temple – Thai protesters failed to reach their intended destination of the disputed border near Preah Vihear this weekend, but the Cambodian military—not the promised riot police—readied their weapons to meet them.
After thousands of their members were held back violently by police and Thai villagers on Saturday, about 30 of the ultra-nationalist People’s Alliance for Democracy were allowed to read a statement within Thailand’s Preah Vihear national park yesterday, according to the English-language Bangkok Post.
Major General Srey Dek, RCAF commander at Preah Vihear, said yesterday that he watched a bus carry the protesters and some journalists to a spot about a kilometer from the border.
“Once they arrived, they got off the bus shouting and waving Thai flags. They did a press conference inside [Thai territory],” he said by telephone yesterday evening, adding that the situation had since returned to normal.
On Thursday, 50 riot police officers were sent from Phnom Penh in anticipation of a border breach by the so-called “yellow shirts” to protest the presence of Cambodian soldiers and civilians in the disputed area near the 11th century temple. As late as Friday evening, RCAF commanders at the temple paraded the police force in front of their Thai counterparts during a meeting at the frontline.
But on Saturday morning, the riot police were nowhere to be seen, while Cambodian soldiers readied their weapons for a confrontation with the protesters and new automatic weapons, still wrapped in plastic, were delivered to the front lines.
Near the market at the base of the mountain, five soldiers prepared an automatic machine gun and ammunition, while a compatriot kept a lookout from a nearby tree.
“Our leader just asked us to prepare to prevent the rioters from entering,” said soldier Tum Ra.
He would not give specifics about what preventative measures had been prescribed, but added, “Maybe it is just a protest, but behind it, they really want our Preah Vihear…. If they want to talk, fine, but we have only weapons to answer.”
Oil Samoeun, a soldier stationed at the now-closed border crossing near the base of the temple, said that he was ordered to prevent the protesters from entering Cambodian territory.
“I heard that the protesters are going to come this way,” he said.
Mr Dek denied yesterday that there was ever an intention of using riot police at the border. He said that Prime Minister Hun Sen had ordered him from the beginning to use military force rather than police to deal with any protesters who crossed the border.
“[The police] just came for training,” he said by telephone. “Samdech Hun Sen had already ordered the use of military force.”
He added that the less lethal electric batons and attack dogs of the police were only to be used for Cambodia’s internal problems.
“We use them for Sam Rainsy only,” Mr Dek said, referring to SRP-led demonstrations. “In this situation, we don’t use shields, electric batons or dog attackers-we use weapons.”
The commander confirmed that new weapons were delivered to the troops Saturday, but would not say how many were in the shipment.
“These guns were ordered by Samdech Techo Hun Sen for a long time ago,” Mr Dek said.
While their husbands cleaned their guns, some battle-weary military wives prepared in a different way on Saturday.
Crouched beneath an overhang of rock on the cliff side looking into Cambodia, 65-year-old Mong Morn said she had taken shelter with about 30 other people early in the morning. When 9 am rolled around with no sign of gunfire, she was one of only two remaining.
“I’m scared because of fighting with the Thais, so I came here to hide,” Ms Morn said. “I’ll stay here until the situation is better.”
She said she has hidden in other caves during past clashes with Thai forces. “Some people run to hide here, some run to Preah Vihear temple if they can’t find a spot in time.”
Tourists, on the other hand, seemed to take the threat of confrontation in stride, arriving by the truckload to celebrate the Pchum Ben holiday.
Like most visitors, Minh Luot from Samraong in Oddar Meanchey province said she was confident the Cambodian military would protect tourists from danger. “We’ve come to our own Cambodian territory; we’re not afraid of Thais.”
French national Raphael Ivara said he wasn’t concerned. “They would have stopped us if anything was wrong.”
For some, the possibility of drama at the border was an added attraction. Ann Samnang came in a group of six from Phnom Penh, with the main goal of seeing the World Heritage Site.
“I need and I want to see my temple,” Mr Samnang said. “But if there is a demonstration, we can see that from here, too.”
At the first temple in the Preah Vihear complex, which offers a clear view of the Thai road leading to the closed border gates, soldiers on walkie-talkies gave news of the approaching protesters. Visitors took turns with the military binoculars, straining to see the yellow shirts that never materialized.
Representatives of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment yesterday.