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Battleground superstitions

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Facing a better-equipped opponent, Cambodian soldiers on the front

lines at Preah Vihear turn to magical talismans to keep them safe from

harm

Photo by:

AFP

A Cambodian soldier shows a magic scarf at a front line along the Cambodia and Thailand border near the Preah Vihear temple.

ACOUPLE of weeks after their deadly border shootout, a Cambodian infantryman admits Thai troops have better weapons, but he's confident his pink "magic scarf" will ward off bullets.

"Thai soldiers have modern weapons, but I am not scared," says Chum Khla.

"I have magic charms to protect myself."

As well as the scarf that he ties around his head, the 28-year-old soldier wears a protective talisman belt and carries two small Buddhist figurines.

"I have had countless gunfights in the past with former Khmer Rouge fighters, but I have never been in any danger," he says, owing his safety to the amulets.

Outgunned in their border standoff that began in July, Chum Khla and his comrades carry on traditions of using mystical Buddhist objects and tattooing spells on their bodies to protect themselves.

The contrast between the Thai and Cambodian sides facing off in disputed territory near the ancient Preah Vihear temple is startling.

The Thai military is backed by state-of-the-art jets and heavy weapons, while many Cambodians wear flip-flops as they carry Cold War-era arms.

Days after October 15 clashes on disputed land left three Cambodians and one Thai dead, many Thai soldiers were fitted with body armour.

I AM NOT SCARED.... I HAVE MAGIC CHARMS TO PROTECT MYSELF.

Cambodian commanders, meanwhile, gave their troops colourful scarves with mystical symbols said to have been imbued with protective powers by a Buddhist monk.

Charms, talismans and superstitions are universal among soldiers around the world. But the tattooed Cambodians, battle-hardened by decades of civil war that ended in 1998, put more stock than most in magic symbols.

Cambodian and Thai leaders have agreed to prevent further clashes, but the troops at the border are not taking any chances - they continue to deck themselves out in all the charms they can get their hands on.

100 percent belief

"I believe 100 percent that these magic things can help spare my life in battle," says Cambodian soldier Koy San.

"I have both a magic scarf and a string of talismans around my hip. I wear them all the time," says the 35-year-old.

One grizzled 38-year-old soldier who declined to give his name says he is even more of a believer in magic after the October fighting, during which his commander was killed.

"He also had a talisman, but he took it off as he took a nap. And he did not have a chance to put it back on when the shootout suddenly happened... so his life was ended."

Khan Yorn, abbot of a pagoda in the disputed area, says he has made countless protective belts for soldiers there.

"A lot of soldiers have asked me for belts ... but I cannot say the amulets can prevent bullets," Khan Yorn says.

But he quickly notes something miraculous might have happened during last month's firefight.

"When the gunfire broke out, I was staying in the monk house, and the bullets were spraying around the pagoda like we spread rice husks," he says. "But they did not hit my monk house."

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