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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers react to troop withdrawal

Villagers react to troop withdrawal

At the top of Preah Vihear temple, the 11th century Hindu site that’s been at the centre of border tensions between Cambodia and Thailand since violent clashes erupted there in February, 24-year-old Akin Rith lights up yet another cigarette.

“I smoke too much when I have nothing to do,” he says. And “nothing” is right. While Akin Rith has been working as a tour guide at the temple since 2008, his business has all but vanished, with few tourists visiting the area for him to offer his English-led tours to. He says that making a living as a tour guide in Cambodia is difficult enough, without the added trauma of having border disputes interfere with the daily lives of thousands around him.

“Tourists are afraid to come here now,” says Akin Rith. “How am I supposed to earn a living? How are they supposed to earn a living?” he asks, pointing at an elderly woman selling cans of soft drink by the grey, stone stairs that lead to the site’s main temple.

Walking around the ancient temple complex, Akin Rith points out smatterings of bullet holes in the stonework and areas which have been affected by the impact of mortar fire, enduring reminders of the fighting that claimed at least 28 lives and left tens of thousands of villagers temporarily displaced.

There has been positive progress recently however since the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hauge, ordered both Thailand and Cambodia to withdraw all military personnel from a newly created demilitarised zone (DMZ) surrounding the Preah Vihear temple complex. The decision was welcomed by both governments and troops are continuing to be removed from the area.

The victory of the Pheu Thai party in Thailand’s general elections held last month also seem to have warmed diplomatic relations between the two countries, bolstering hopes of a resolution to the ongoing border conflict and therefore, a more secure future for those who call the area home.

Hopes are that tourism in the province will again pick up, and therefore help to revive the myriad jobs which go along with it.

Dieng Ka, 31, is optimistic. A father of two, he provides for his family by collecting and selling recyclable goods such as cans and bottles. Before the border clashes erupted however, Dieng Ka says he used to work as a photographer, taking pictures of tourists who visited the temple – a job he claims earned him three times as much money as he’s making now.

And it’s not only the area’s long-term locals that are being affected by the border situation. Many families of the soldiers stationed at the border have seen their loved ones’ have to endure innumerable situations of extreme danger. For some, the consequences of the conflict have been close to unbearable.

Photo by: Jean Carrere
The long-running dispute between Cambodia and Thailand near the border has
affected many locals, making it near impossible for them to make a living.

Seri Lom, 38, who lives with his wife, Seri Sam, 25, and their two children in Sra Kedol, a small village just a few kilometres from the temple, has a brother enrolled in the army.

“I have been very worried for my brother during the fighting. Now, with [Yingluck Shinawatra, the new Thai Prime Minister], we will have peace in Preah Vihear,” Seri Lom says, hope ringing in his voice.

Not all of the area’s residents are so confident though. Tho Bopha, 26, whose soldier husband has been stationed at Preah Vihear for over three years has seen the fighting not only of earlier this year, but also the violence of 2008 and 2010.

“I am sick of fearing for my husband’s life. Now, I want him to be safe,” she says, a sad anger washing over her face..

And while troops are currently being removed from the area, Tho Bopha is skeptical a true end will come any time soon.

“We have been told it would happen very soon, but I do not think that it is true,” she says.

A military officer stationed in the province, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The pull-out is going to take some time, we just cannot say how long now.”

Though despite his concerns, he does believe a complete resolution will eventually come about.

“It will happen eventually, and it is a good thing. Both governments cannot avoid the ICJ ruling. The DMZ is in place, and it will stay in place.”

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