Just over a year ago, Cambodian soldiers were training their sights on the border, firing artillery shells and launching rockets into neighbouring Thailand.
Yesterday, some of those same men jovially waved from military trucks as they finally headed home from Preah Vihear.
The redeployment of troops by both sides came on the first anniversary of an International Court of Justice ruling that ordered Thailand and Cambodia to “immediately” withdraw troops from a Provisional Demilitarised Zone established around the disputed Preah Vihear temple.
Still drawing flak for its perceived deference to Beijing over the South China Sea dispute during the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh last week, the government lauded the demilitarisation as a step to its vision of regional “peace and prosperity” yesterday.
“Redeployment of troops at this time clearly shows Cambodia is a state party to and abiding by international law,” Defence Minister Tea Banh said yesterday. “The troops’ redeployment was made after four years of confrontation.”
Tensions over the long disputed 11th-century temple began escalating four years ago after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared it a Cambodian World Heritage Site.
Coinciding with an anniversary celebration of that decision, 485 Cambodian and an undisclosed number of Thai troops were redeployed from the 17.3-square-kilometre PDZ set up by ICJ after fatal clashes erupted last year.
On Friday, during a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, Prime Minster Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, struck the deal to begin redeploying troops from the PDZ, which surrounds the 4.6 square kilometres of disputed territory – a pact greeted with enthusiasm by men in uniform yesterday.
“I’m really happy to see my family, and will have time to make business for a living,” said Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldier Mar Chet, 49, before jumping into a truck.
But it remained unclear yesterday whether the RCAF troops, who are being replaced by 255 police and 100 conservation rangers, will return to civilian life or remain in active service elsewhere.
Tith Sothea, a spokesman for the government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said Cambodia was taking a cautious approach to the redeployment “We will see Thailand’s implementation, whether they will do like us or not,” he said.
“We redeployed only at some areas within the PDZ,” Sothea said, adding this was the first stage of a three-step process to withdraw all troops.
Those areas included the Naga Star Market as well as the northern and eastern ancient stairways of the Keo Sekha Kirisvara pagoda.
Thailand’s police spokesman, Piya Uthayo, confirmed yesterday that soldiers of the 23rd Rangers Company stationed in front of Preah Vihear temple had been replaced by 200 Border Patrol Police.
According to the original ICJ ruling, the troops are supposed to be replaced by independent Indonesian border observers, though Thailand has at times balked at the idea.
Nationalists groups and the opposition Democrat Party in Thailand have frequently invoked the sovereignty dispute over Preah Vihear to stir up public sentiment and gain political traction.
Members of Thailand’s Power of Land group said on Tuesday they planned to protest against Thailand’s redeployment, labelling it a “wrong strategic step” that could cost the country land.
Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said that the democratically elected Yingluck seemed to enjoy enough political stability to gradually push forward toward the introduction of border observers.
“The political heat seems to be out, [but] not completely. There still seems to be scab wounds that can be picked over,” he said. “I would have thought corruption scandals, the return of [her fugitive brother] Thaksin [Shinawatra] or something else would have to happen to raise the salience of this issue.”
But nationalists and the military in Thailand could argue the Indonesian border observers would solidify Cambodia’s claim to the territory.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is due to arrive in Cambodia today to meet with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, but before observers from his country can be deployed, the areas they are destined for must be de-mined.
Heng Ratana, director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, said he had initiated discussions about how to do this with his Thai counterpart last month, but had not come to any specific agreement.
“We have not yet set a specific date and have yet to hold official talks,” he said.