[This story originally published July 19, 2008]
Preah Vihear temple – He had a sword. The meter-long blade hung in a tan leather scabbard from the trouser belt of a shirtless young man as he gnawed on a corncob, waiting to do battle with Thai soldiers practically in the shadow of the 11th Century temple.
Five hundred years ago the image would have been apt. But this was the afternoon of Saturday July 19, 2008, and the troops massing in the forest at the stairway and to the west of Preah Vihear temple were not Siamese warriors of bygone kings but Thailand’s border rangers and Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol special forces.
On that afternoon, it seemed that everyone at the temple had a rifle, rocket launcher or hand grenade-not to mention the anachronistic sword-and were ready to pitch in against the Thai army.
Like some teen-disco militia, several skinny youths in jeans and T-shirts were also spotted around the temple with AK-47s. One even had a grenade stuck by its spool in the back pocket of his faded denims.
Four days earlier, the first contingent of determined Thai troops had trekked across the narrow trail that had until then divided Thailand’s Si Sa Ket from Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, taking Cambodia by surprise.
In the first days after the July 15 incursion, the black-uniformed Thai border rangers and camouflaged LRRP soldiers, held firm their positions at the Cambodian-built Keo Sikha Kiri Svarak pagoda, which RCAF troops had yet to enter and journalists were at first barred from by the Thais.
The Thais carried their assault rifles and M-79 grenade launchers at the ready, and their trigger fingers were always extended just above the trigger guard, clearly indicating that they meant business.
As early morning fog lifted from the mountain on Thursday July 17, a few dozen RCAF soldiers watched the pagoda warily. Most squatted with their weapons along the steep road that connects the temple to the Cambodian countryside below. It was upon this road that Thai troops had to walk the final 100 meters or so to the occupied pagoda after emerging from the forest.
Almost by the hour, tension would peak then peter out, as more and more Thai troops arrived at the Buddhist compound, and the RCAF troops looking on angrily cursed the strict orders they had received to not to open fire, unless shot at first.
In short order, the Thais had established a foothold at the pagoda, granting them a strong presence in the disputed area just 200 meters from the temple.
But the tables began turn late on July 17.
Sar Thavy, Preah Vihear’s stocky, flat-topped deputy governor, who kept an automatic pistol tucked into the waistband of his urban-camouflage combat pants, set up his office in a one-room border police office next to the pagoda where a meeting started between Cambodian military, police and provincial officials.
Being the eve of the Buddhist festival of Choul Preah Vosa, monks were summoned from surrounding pagodas to celebrate at the occupied wat. Within hours, more than 60 Cambodian monks had arrived, driving on motorcycles past the stationed Thai troops.
Shortly after lunch, Sar Thavy and RCAF Colonel Som Bopharoath entered the pagoda to tell Captain Apichat Poopauk, who was in charge of the 300-strong Thai force, that Cambodian civilians and soldiers would be entering the compound to celebrate the ceremony with the monks. The Thais conceded and the pagoda was then opened to all, including journalists.
In the surrounding scrub forest and patches of jungle, Cambodian forces had also begun to deploy side-by-side with the growing number of Thai troops, who were themselves camping in the surrounding valley and the high, stony ground behind the pagoda.
Strategically, keeping the well-armed troops from both sides stationed cheek-by-jowl together ensured a degree of calm and deterrence as fighting at such close range would be terribly bloody, and mutually, very destructive.
Probably the closest both sides came to conflict was on that Thursday night when a heavy downpour forced Thai troops to seek shelter inside a wooden building at the pagoda. Cambodian troops tried to stop them, and dozens on both sides chambered bullets and pointed their assault rifles and rocket launchers at each other until senior RCAF officers talked everyone into backing down. The Thais were finally allowed to take shelter.
By the end of the weekend, both sides were growing more familiar with each other’s presence-many of the Thai border soldiers are ethnic Khmers from Surin province and could chat easily with RCAF soldiers. Similarly, a fair number of Cambodian troops from Preah Vihear and Anlong Veng were chatting in Thai. Donations from the public were also flowing to the mountaintop and the spirits of the Cambodian forces was growing.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh held talks with the Thai military’s supreme commander, General Boonsrang Niempradit, on Monday, July 21, and their failure to reach a breakthrough led many on the mountain to believe that Thailand would launch an imminent attack, and the fear was that it would come by air.
But Cambodian troop strengths had grown to such a number that soldiers on the ground were now prepared, and some appeared to be itching, for a fight.
As the days ticked off, small weapons, and some larger ones, proliferated on the mountain, and the possibility of an accidental shooting or explosion seemed of greater threat than any Thai soldier.
Small, black Chinese grenades had been issued, and soon every soldier with a trouser belt, or pocket, had stashed half-a-dozen of the plum-sized explosives.
On Thursday July 24, when Minister of Defense Tea Banh visited the temple and told his commanders that they could expect a prolonged standoff with the Thais, the mood was becoming almost picnic-like.
With donations of noodles, rice, sardines, and new uniforms and boots pouring in, Cambodian troops just arriving to the temple began to pose for souvenir photos, their weapons shoulders and aimed in the direction of Thailand.
An unknown number of Thai and Cambodia troops – some say as many as 4,000 soldiers on either side – are still camped at the pagoda and in surrounding forest.
The foreign ministers from both countries met on Monday in Siem Reap and after 12 hours of talks said they would recommend to their respective governments a troop, “redeployment,” which depending on how you interpret it does not necessarily mean a withdrawal. Prime Minister Hun Sen said he would pull troops out if Thailand did so also. Officials in Phnom Penh and Bangkok believe the negotiations will be a drawn-out affair.
But how much time is there really to solve the standoff peacefully? With thousands of troops amassed, armed and bored, the possibility remains of a personal dispute or a clumsy accident pushing everything over the edge of Preah Vihear mountain.