Restless Troops Await Removal From Preah Vihear Temple

preah vihear temple – Thai and Cambodian troops are growing restless at Preah Vihear temple after seven weeks of facing off in the ongoing border dispute.

Sitting in close proximity to each other, troops are left with little to do but sit around and occasionally make a visit to the market. The busiest people at the temple may be vendors catering to the soldiers.

Signs of military activity begin far before Preah Vihear, with RCAF camps beginning 30 km south of the clifftop temple and increasing in frequency and size as the dirt road nears the 525-meter-high mountain. Trucks packed with troops move along the road, and motor­bikes overloaded with vegetables wind toward the temple.

But once there, it’s a relatively peaceful scene: Employees for the Preah Vihear National Authority reinforce the Angkorian temple with wood frames, the grass is being cut and troops along the frontline casually play chess.

RCAF Deputy Commander for Preah Vihear province Som Bo­pha­roath said 2,000 Cambodian troops remain in the temple area: 800 around the temple itself, 400 along the frontline on the nearby border, 500 along Cambodia’s 20 km-long access road, and 300 at nearby Phnom Trop mountain.

Som Bopharoath said 300 military police were removed Saturday and sent back to Phnom Penh, un­derscoring the easing scene at the temple.

“It’s not important that they stay. Before, they were stationed here to push back the Thai demonstrators,” he said Sunday, adding that no protesters have appeared in weeks.

In an interview at his headquarters at the highest point of the 800-meter-long Preah Vihear temple, Som Bopharoath described his days: patrolling the frontline in the morning while in the afternoon radioing with officers and overseeing various tasks.

But on Sundays, he said, troops relax, play cards or watch television.

Downhill at the pagoda, the site of the tensest confrontations since the border dispute erupted July 15, about 30 Cambodian troops crowded around a TV set Sunday eve­ning to watch a kickboxing match. A monk sat with them, puffing on a cigarette.

While a pact was reached Aug 13 for only 10 Thai and 10 Cambodian troops to be stationed at the temple, both sides are finding wiggle room in the agreement.

RCAF Deputy Commander for Preah Vihear province Thol So­vann is in charge of the operation at the pagoda. He said Sunday that extra troops are allowed to visit for short periods, though only 10 are permanently stationed. The following morning, about 30 officials visited the Thai camp at the pagoda from the Thai Mine Action Center.

Thai Captain Apichat Poopauk, who heads the Thai camp at the pagoda, said Monday that the situation is calm now with troops from both sides exchanging cigarettes and breakfasting together as they await the order to withdraw.

All along the frontline—stretching 3 km through the jungle from the pagoda to the Cambodian market at the base of the temple’s steps—Thai and Cambodian soldiers are rubbing elbows.

“We share cigarettes together,” said Phan Yunibhan, a 45-year-old Thai soldier camped 5 meters from a Cambodian tent. But the days are long, he added, spent smoking, sitting, cooking, talking with Thai troops and talking with Cambodian troops.

Thai soldier Kep Klee, 45, said drinking isn’t allowed on the frontline, but he sometimes steals away for a nip at a Thai market 2 km away. On Monday morning, the Khmer-speaking soldier from Thailand’s Surin province sat beside Cambodian soldier Leak Vouth, 40, and the two said they knew each other “as brothers.”

As he sat near the temple Sun­day, RCAF Deputy Commander for Preah Vihear province Mas Yeun said he was disappointed when the Thai military called off last Friday’s negotiations on the border dispute.

But he added that seven weeks into the standoff, RCAF soldiers remain disciplined, following their primary order to “keep quiet and wait for the orders of the high command.”

But troops also expressed frustration with the ongoing stalemate.

“I’m tired of sitting here,” said Cambodian border police officer Cheam Rang, 35, stationed on a wooden bench 10 meters from the locked entrance gate to the temple.

“We are tired, and we are angry,” said RCAF soldier Rim Sarun, 48, stationed in the middle of the frontline. The Thais invaded Cambodia, he said, but he is not allowed to fight them, only to stop them from advancing.

“We just sit here to prevent them from invading more,” said RCAF soldier Kol Kim, 45, stationed along the front since July 15.

“This is important; this is our land, this is our sovereignty,” he added, but then laughed when he considered the thought of defending his position: To his rear is a mined jungle valley, he said, and to his front is a line of armed Thai troops.

Nine RCAF soldiers from Preah Vihear province are stationed at Kol Kim’s small jungle camp, he said, and two are allowed to leave at a time to escape to the nearby Cam­bodian market for a break.

At the market, local food vendors say they’re making a killing off the standoff.

Before the dispute erupted, about 100 vendors crowded the market at the base of the temple, but half as many now remain.

Despite the absence of the 300 Thai tourists who used to visit daily, vendor Kim Nielly, 42, said her sales are slightly better than two months ago. As she peeled a piece of fruit, eight Cambodian soldiers sat around her stall laughing and eating duck eggs.

Kong Tharoeun, 56, said she moved to Preah Vihear temple from Phnom Penh in early August to take advantage of the situation. She opened a small, open-air res­taurant beside the pagoda and said she is pocketing $30 a day, up from $25 in Phnom Penh, where overhead costs are significantly higher.

“I came here in case the soldiers had a need for more food,” she said Monday while serving noodle soup, adding that the troop presence doesn’t worry her because her brother is an officer stationed on the front.

“Here, we can sell from morning to night,” she said.

“When the military police came, we started selling more,” said cake stall owner Horm Sina, 44. She said she sold 70 cakes a day, filled with coconut shavings, soy or ham, at the height of the temple dispute, but now moves about 50 cakes a day, which is still more than the 40 she sold daily two months ago.

“When the soldiers come, sales are better. When they withdraw the troops, I will not sell as much,” she said.

Not all vendors said they’re doing well: Jewelry and furniture sell­ers said sales had halved in the past six weeks, and they look forward to the border gate reopening to deep-pocketed Thai tourists.

As vendor Ieng Manny, 37, put it, “Soldiers don’t have much money.”

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