preah vihear temple – While Thai forces for the first time began to dig combat trenches at their locations in the forest around Preah Vihear temple Wednesday, RCAF soldiers were being treated to a celebrity visit from stars and starlets of the local television and music world.
Digging began at Thai positions in the narrow, forested valley through which Thai troops have trekked daily since July 15 to re-supply and relieve their colleagues based at the Preah Vihear pagoda.
The troops bunkering in, who appear to be members of Thailand’s elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, were also seen for the first time wearing Kevlar combat helmets.
RCAF troops stationed just meters apart from the Thai position in the forest said Wednesday morning that they would not be following suit.
“Those who dig trenches wage war,” said Lieutenant Colonel Men Ly, speaking about 2 meters from where a young Thai soldier struggled to dig into the weed-tangled soil of the valley.
“We won’t dig because we want peace,” he said, adding that if peace wasn’t enough, his unit would fight back from nearby rock formations.
Other RCAF troops, however, began digging trenches later Wednesday, which led to the Thai commander at the pagoda calling a meeting at which he asked that Cambodian troops stop such activity, said Hang Soth, director general of the Preah Vihear Authority.
The Thai commander also asked for a rearrangement of the frontline in the forest so that Cambodian troops would be further from the Thai positions, Hang Soth said.
“Both sides have taken their recommendations from the meeting to their troop leaders,” he added.
Just a short walk from the new trenches, there was an almost upbeat mood at the pagoda Wednesday morning, when RCAF troops were treated to a surprise visit by well-known actors and singers, as well as some figures from the world of local kick-boxing, who brought a large consignment of donations for the soldiers.
RCAF commanders in charge of the military buildup were also treated to some traditional Apsara dancing amid the 11th century ruins from a small troupe led by well-known drama figure Chan Phal, director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Fine Arts Office.
“We held a dance to wish for peace and safety,” Chan Phal said.
The convoy of local celebrities, many from the TV station CTN, was led by Kith Tieng, the brother of CTN’s well-known owner Kith Meng, who took a short walking tour of the occupied pagoda with Preah Vihear’s Deputy Governor Sar Thavy.
“It’s a pity what has happened to this heritage area. I would like this area to be peaceful. This is what everyone wishes for,” said Kith Tieng, who is owner of the Rock nightclub in Phnom Penh.
A member of Rock Productions, who declined to give his name, said that Kith Tieng had received about $150,000 in donations.
Among others in attendance was CTN’s cooking show host Youk Chenda, pop crooner Tuy, boxing referee Sok Vichey, and weekend kickboxing commentator Ma Serey.
Wednesday was a good day for the star-studded visit, as many of the RCAF troops at the temple had been issued with new combat uniforms and boots, part of a standardization of fatigues so that Cambodian troops can more easily distinguish friend from foe, an RCAF official said.
With a flow of donations to the RCAF troops arriving daily and with an apparent growing confidence in the face of the Thai military presence, groups of young soldiers posed for photographs—rifles and rockets raised—with visiting locals and journalists, whose numbers have increased each day since the buildup began.
But the possibility of a deadly conflict is ever present, if only as the result of an accidental discharge of a weapon on either side, or a dropped hand-grenade, several of which now seem to bedeck almost every RCAF trouser waistband or combat shirt pocket.
There was even a grenade jutting from the back pocket of a faded pair of jeans Tuesday, worn by a skinny young man with long hair and a white muscle T-shirt who looked decidedly non-military.