Preah Vihear standoff sparks urge to kill in battle-hardened former Khmer Rouge
Former Khmer Rouge soldier Khieu Nhoy (right) would rather fight than wait at Preah Vihear.
Former Khmer Rouge veterans at Preah Vihear are boiling within as they stare down Thai soldiers just a dozen meters away, with orders not to engage.
“I want to shoot,” barked Khieu Nhoy, 48, within earshot of a Thai encampment.
“Standing so close to each other without being able to do anything makes me anxious,” he said. “As experienced soldiers, when we see the enemy and can’t shoot, we feel unsatisfied.”
Recruited by the Khmer Rouge in 1973, Khiev Nhoy had long laid his rifle to rest but said he jumped at the sight of what he calls a Thai invasion of Cambodia.
“I’ve relaxed for many years but seeing this made me want to fight again.”
The bulk of Cambodia’s soldiers stationed at Preah Vihear are former Khmer Rouge who fought for decades in these forests against enemies of various stripes but now find themselves sharing days and nights within a stone’s throw of their newest potential target, unable to fire a shot.
Political and military leaders on both sides have urged calm and patience even as the situation on the ground has intensified.
Despite occasional jovial exchanges between troops on both sides, especially in the presence of flashing cameras, many of Cambodia’s battle-hardened grunts say they are struggling to bear the insult of accommodating foreign troops on the temple grounds.
“In this fight there would be some extremely motivated Khmers,” said one foreign military source with experience in Cambodia.
“Most Westerners don’t really appreciate or feel the depth of their nationalism, it is really quite raw and strong,” he told the Post by email.
“The advantage of the former KR, or indeed RCAF soldiers from other factions, is that they may have indeed been exposed to combat ... they have the ‘home ground’ advantage, to use a football analogy. They know the ground intimately, including the Thai side in which they used to harbor during the war.”
While the official line calls for patience, it still has not stopped some from planning their combat tactics. Former Khmer Rouge fighters have led informal efforts to flag “enemy weak points” and insist the forested mountains of Preah Vihear are prime grounds for them.
Ly Leap, 49, has spent the last few days pacing along the frontline, gathering intelligence on Thai soldiers and encouraging his former Khmer Rouge comrades to hold the line.
“For me this is not a serious situation because I have stepped into many battlefields before, attacking large groups with just a couple of men,” he said, adding that now he could benefit from numbers and equipment he never had as a Khmer Rouge.
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“If we want to win, we shouldn’t just stand looking at them, we should fight. When I see a situation like this, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know my place. My former comrades all say the same. We feel tense. We don’t want war, but when the war comes to us, we want to fight. Sitting like this will not solve the problem.”
He said that, along with his former comrades, he’s tired of biting his tongue waiting on diplomatic efforts.
“When we are strong like this, they won’t do anything, but if they think we are weak by not responding with force, they will push us further. We attack first and use diplomacy later. This is the way to get your way with the enemy.”
Sim Bin, 48, spent the better part of two decades in arms, against the Vietnamese from 1978 to 1979 and subsequently against government troops until 1998.
He said that while his life has shifted from battlefields to business, he never retired his gun.
“When I heard that Thailand had invaded my country, I said I would fight. My other Khmer Rouge comrades said the same,” he said.
“I’ve fought for so long so it’s not a problem to fight again,” he said. “But this situation is very difficult for us. Before, as Khmer Rouge, we would have shot at the first site of invaders. I’m tired of seeing the enemy walk in front of me and not being able to do anything.”
A Khmer Rouge soldier beginning in 1972, Leng Khorn, now 47, said his fiercest battles are behind him.
“I spent years listening to American bombs drop near me and being shot at by Vietnamese, who were the best trained, so why would I be afraid of these Thai soldiers?”
He says former Khmer Rouge are expert at exploiting rugged conditions.
“This jungle is good for us. We can dodge their big guns. Thais rely on modern equipment and are not used to guerilla warfare like us. The Thais know our strength and experience as Khmer Rouge.”