preah vihear temple – A tense day of military brinkmanship between Thai and Cambodian troops ended with an apparent peaceful compromise Thursday afternoon, with both sides agreeing to de-escalate their activities until intergovernmental negotiations next week.
The bid to defuse the armed buildup was struck at the Preah Vihear pagoda, which has been under tight military control since Tuesday.
RCAF officials at about 4 pm notified the commander of the Thai forces that they would be entering the compound to give offerings of boxes of noodles to 60 Cambodian monks. The monks had traveled to the pagoda to celebrate today’s Choul Preah Vosa ceremony.
After being granted access, RCAF Colonel Son Bopharoath and Preah Vihear Deputy Governor Sor Thavy addressed Thai commander Wern Champasa, laying out conditions to keep both sides from slipping into conflict—a scenario that was looking ever more likely as the hours passed and reinforcements for both sides continued to stream into the vicinity of the temple.
Son Bopharoath said the situation would remain calm if the Thais allowed the Buddhist celebration and granted access to anyone who wanted to attend.
The Thais were also told to prevent any Thai civilians from joining them at the pagoda and to end the rotation of troops between the pagoda and Thailand.
Wern said no civilians were at the pagoda and that Thursday he had prevented any Thai protesters from coming near the border. He also said that only food supplies for his troops would travel back and forth across the border.
Striking a lighter tone, the Thai commander said Cambodian and Thai soldiers were very similar.
“Cambodian and Thai soldiers are the same. We should not do anything [to each other],” he said.
However, that agreement appeared to be breaking down Thursday evening over where the Thai soldiers should sleep. Cambodian authorities wanted the Thai troops to sleep outside the pagoda to allow room for the monks, according to officials—a request Thai soldiers reportedly refused.
Dawn broke on Preah Vihear temple Thursday morning with scores of RCAF troops traveling the 4-km road to the mountaintop. At the pagoda, the soldiers, armed with light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, stood just meters away from the Thai guards, who had placed a US-made M-60 light machine gun and a B-40 rocket on a rocky outcrop beside the pagoda’s entrance gate.
Small fires burned in the forest as Cambodian soldiers cooked breakfast and the sound of chopping wood echoed around the temple as troops prepared to turn Khmer Rouge-era trenches into tented shooting locations.
At one observation post overlooking the valley where Thai troops steadily entered the forest route leading to the pagoda, Cambodian soldiers radioed in new numbers of infiltrating troops every 15 minutes or so.
Sitting beside a heavy machine gun that can be used to shoot down aircraft, Lieutenant Colonel Kim Chhai, 48, said his orders were such that “all I can do is count the Thais.”
“The government doesn’t let us fight. That is why the Thais are so aggressive,” he said as he radioed in that 16 troops were on their way across the border.
“They just keep coming and coming.”
There were conflicting figures Thursday on the number of Thai troops at the pagoda and in the surrounding forest, but several RCAF officers put the number at about 400 with an additional 70 deminers.
Chhay Borin, deputy director of immigration police at Preah Vihear, said the number of Thai troops was difficult to estimate because many had camped in small units in the forest of the disputed valley between Thailand and Cambodia. Like many Cambodian police and soldiers interviewed Thursday, Chhay Borin lamented the fact that Cambodian forces were under strict orders not to open fire or block the Thais’ entry route to the pagoda.
“If we were ordered, they would all be dead,” he said.
More than 300 families that had populated the makeshift market near the temple’s locked gateway with Thailand had all but abandoned the area Thursday. Most had quit the mountain entirely, but about 50 families had moved up to the relative safety of the temple itself.
By mid-morning Thursday, dozens of Cambodian troops had taken up positions on the approach road to the Thai-held pagoda, particularly at the spot where Thai troops were emerging from the forest. This in turn prompted Thai troops to post their own small units almost face-to-face and side-by-side with RCAF troops.
At one stage of the approximately 100 meters leading up to the pagoda was a narrow alleyway of young and old Thai and Cambodian troops standing and sitting cheek by jowl with a horrifying range of weaponry.
But the tension also gave rise to some dark humor between the opposing soldiers.
Some Thai troops attempted to say “hello” in Khmer, while one Cambodian officer responded with a smile, “I am well. I am just waiting on my orders and I will shoot you instantly.”
Though both sides appeared by Thursday evening to have reached an understanding to let their governments negotiate and decide on the next move, the tension had frayed the nerves of Yun Lung, a 59-year-old vendor who lived in front of the pagoda. She said she had not eaten or slept for two days and had sent her children and grandchildren off the mountain for safety reasons.
Yun Lung said she doesn’t want to see any fighting, but like all other Cambodians spoken to, she said the Thais must leave.
“They provoked this,” she said. “The Thais took the pagoda, and that is Cambodian land.”