PREAH VIHEAR TEMPLE
CAMBODIAN soldiers stationed near Preah Vihear temple invited 10 of their Thai counterparts to lunch Sunday in a bid to ease tensions ahead of the one-year anniversary of the temple's inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) officers stationed at the border told the Post that 10 Cambodians also attended the meal at Keo Sekha Kirisvara pagoda, 300 metres from Preah Vihear.
"We had lunch together with 10 Thai officers because we want to show that we remain friendly," said Brigadier General Thol Sovann, deputy commander of RCAF Division 3.
"The party was intended to reduce the tension between the Cambodian and Thai soldiers."
Major Apidshat Poopauk, who headed the Thai military delegation at the lunch meeting, told reporters that the lunch was a bid to normalise the situation around the 11th-century temple, which has been the centre of a standoff between the two countries since its listing as a World Heritage site last July.
"My team has been here for one year, and now we have had lunch together to ease the [border] situation," he said.
Although Thai and Cambodian commanders have held high-level lunch meetings in the past, Sunday marked the first time that rank-and-file soldiers were invited to break bread with their counterparts.
Ean Phov, a Brigade 7 soldier who cooked the lunch for the meeting, said the shared Khmer meal would facilitate reconciliation in the buildup to the anniversary of the UNESCO listing Tuesday.
"I don't know if [my food] is good or not, but it is intended as a symbol of peace," he said.
"Even if my food is not tasty, it shows that we are communicating with each other and are friendly."
But other troops said the meal was intended to send a "farewell" to the Thai troops stationed at the border.
A senior officer in Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, who declined to be named, said RCAF commanders were frustrated because Thailand had not withdrawn its troops from the area.
Thai commanders had said they would discuss a troop withdrawal with leaders in Bangkok by Wednesday of last week, he added, but then said they would need until Sunday.
"They always say that they will withdraw on this day and then when we check again, they say they need another day. They always reply to us like this. If the soldiers will not withdraw from [the area], we will take measures against them," the officer said.
Meanwhile, one Cambodian soldier escaped with only minor injuries when he triggered a land mine while patrolling at Chak Chreng, close to the disputed temple, on Sunday morning.
Lieutenant Colonel Bun Vanna, deputy chief of staff at RCAF Brigade 8, told the Post that the soldier triggered the land mine when he tripped on a piece of wood. He said the soldier suffered minor injuries.
Brigade 8 commander Yim Phim said the mine had been planted during the civil war between Khmer Rouge insurgents and the government.
"[The soldier] is very lucky. The temple spirits must have blessed him," Yim Phim said.
Although several Thai soldiers have been injured by land mines during the year-long standoff, he said, Sunday's incident was the first in which a Cambodian soldier fell victim to a mine.
He also said it disproved past Thai allegations that Cambodia has been laying fresh mines along the border in order to ensnare Thai patrols.
"The fact that one of our soldiers stepped on the mine means that we did not plant it [recently]. It means they are all old mines from a long time ago," he said Sunday.
Yim Phim added that he and other brigade commanders would travel to Phnom Penh today to attend a concert marking the one-year anniversary of Preah Vihear's World Heritage inscription.