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Preah Vihear: A Mountain of Undeniable Fact

The dispute over the sovereignty of Preah Vihear temple has been in the headlines in recent days. The usual themes expressed regarding the dispute center on the loss of territory, burying the past, or correcting fake information. I share these sentiments. However, this dispute involves a much deeper issue that extends beyond these themes.

Many Cambodians have already buried more than enough of the past. Buddhism has taught Cambodians to forgive and forget to the point that they can even forget tragic events that involve the loss of thousands of lives. The point I want to make here, which has not surfaced in the news media, involves an event that happened on this disputed site less than three decades ago. If the Thais still remembered this event, they should be hesitant to discuss Preah Vihear temple site at all. This site should be the site of shame for them, rather than one of pride. The event I am talking about is the ‘forced repatriation’ of thousands of Cambodian refugees who sought refuge inside Thailand’s border after the Khmer Rouge period ended in 1979.

As a post-war generation Khmer, I did not experience these events, but in order to understand these extremely sad and heart-breaking events, one only needs to flip through a few pages of two books: “The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience” by William Shawcross (1984) and “To Destroy You Is No Loss” by Joan Criddle and Teeda Butt Mam (1987.)

When the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, thousands of refugees fled the country to the West. These refugees settled in temporary camp sites along Cambodia-Thai border. Lacking support from the international community to handle this huge number of refugees, the Thais resolved to push them back into Cambodia. Shawcross provides a moving account of this event below:

“On the morning of Friday, June 8, 110 buses pulled up at the border site of Nong Chan, a few miles north of Aranyaprathet, where several thousand refugees were now camped in fields. Thai soldiers in the buses told the refugees they were being moved to another, better camp.

Some refugees seemed to believe what they were told and were happy enough to leave the squalid, overcrowded conditions of Nong Chan. Others were not; one woman, who had walked out of Cambodia to Nong Chan with her three children only a week before, said later that she was terrified when the Thai soldiers began to herd them into buses.” (pg. 88)

In her first-hand account, Teeda Mam provided a perspective on what it was like to be one refugee inside one of those buses. After finding out that the bus was not going to Bangkok but back to Cambodian border, “each person, murmuring angrily or fighting back tears, tried to come to grips with catastrophe in his own way. Shocked disbelief showed on every face. … We had just come from hell and were being sentenced to return. We couldn’t believe our awful fate. Defeated, many wished only for a quick death.” (pg. 251)

She further wrote how cruel she felt being pushed back:

“Cruel as it was, we could understand the lie, but it was doubly cruel to push us back across in the north when arrangements had been made for returning us to the south. It seemed little short of cold-blooded, premeditated murder. The remote jungle had been chosen deliberately. The Thais wanted an international incident and we were to be it.” (pg. 251)

The Thais wanted to make a statement, which was that they could not handle the refugee crisis unless international aid was provided immediately. However, to make such a statement at a cost of thousands of lives was a rather inhumane one. How inhumane this statement was can be measured by what happened when these refugees arrived at the Preah Vihear site. Shawcross continued:

“Loaded with Cambodian refugees from temporary camp sites all over eastern Thailand, hundreds of buses converged on a mountainous region of the northeastern border near the temple of Preah Vihear, whose ownership had long been a source of bitter dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. They arrived, with military precision, after dark.

The border had been sealed off by Thai soldiers; the area was flooded with troops. The refugees were ordered, busload by busload, to walk back into Cambodia. They were told that there was a path down the mountains but that on the other side the Vietnamese army was waiting to welcome them. Thai soldiers also said, ‘Thai money will not be valid in Kampuchea; we ask you to make a voluntary contribution to our army.’” (pg. 89)

Teeda Mam also described the scene when her bus arrived at Preah Vihear site. She wrote:

“The buses lurched to a standstill. We were ordered out. People refused to budge until forced from their seats at gunpoint. If only we could hold out a little longer without going back across the border, perhaps the order would be rescinded. Everyone knew that shock waves from Thailand’s decision to return us were reverberating throughout the world. Thailand’s point had been made, and we did not want to be the victims of its strong message that help was needed immediately.

Camping on the Thai side of the border had been made impossible. Refugees, herded like cattle one busload at a time, were funneled between lines of soldiers to the summit of a steep ridge that marked the border, then pushed over. Wielding guns, Thai soldiers shouted, “Go down, Go down.” They began shooting at those who refused to start down the face of the cliff.” (pg. 251-252)

Shawcross added to the description, “The path down the mountains became steeper, the jungle thicker. Dozens, scores of people fell onto mines. Those with possessions had to abandon them to carry their children down.” (pg. 89) Once the refugees began to descend down the cliff, the scene became more horrific. Even after almost three decades, I believe those who descended down the cliff and survived still have a hard time coming to terms with that event. Teeda Mam described this unimaginable descent into hell:

“Below the ridge, we could hear people screaming and moaning. Those who had been forced over the border during the past two days stubbornly refused to move off the mountainside trails, yet the press of refugees from above kept pushing them farther down. The entire face of the hill had been heavily mined by the Khmer Rouge four years ago, and everyone was terrified to break a new trail in the five-mile-wide no-man’s-land. Occasionally, a mine exploded as the crowd pushed someone off the trail. Since everyone wanted to step only where they had seen others step, they slid cautiously downward only when forced from above by the pressure of others moving downhill. Descent proceeded at a snail’s pace.” (pg. 252)

Some of the refugees tried to buy their way out of this deadly descent. Shawcross wrote:

“One group of refugees desperately pooled whatever valuable they had left, filled two buckets with them and walked back up toward the Thai soldiers, carrying a white flag. The soldiers took the buckets and then opened fire on the refugees.” (pg. 89-90)

Teeda Mam confirms this cruel account:

“The Chinese gentleman and his party had pooled their Thai money in a red plastic bucket. Quietly, he offered it to the soldier, then asked to be pointed in a direction leading to freedom. The soldier accepted the bucket and motioned with his gun down a side path as he looked the other way. No sooner had the group started down this path, however, than the guard turned and raised the muzzle of his submachine gun. They fell like dominoes.” (pg. 253)

I believe that any sane person would be brought to tears by this account, but the story is worse when we realized that it continued for days. Shawcross further wrote:

“For days this operation went on. Altogether, between 43,000 and 45,000 people were pushed down the cliffs at Preah Vihear. It took three days to cross the mine field. Water was very hard to find. Some people had salt. Very few had food. The Thais had distributed at most a cup of rice per person before the buses were emptied.

One refugee who finally managed to escape back to Thailand told UNHCR officials: “The crowd was very dense. It was impossible to number the victims of the land mines. The wounded people were moaning. The most difficult part of the walk was near the dead bodies. Tears I thought had dried up long ago came back to my eyes-less because of the sight than from the thought that those innocent people had paid with their lives for their attempts to reach freedom in a world that was too selfish.”” (pg. 90)

For Teeda Mam, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge years, what happened at Preah Vihear even surpassed these terrible years. She wrote:

“I thought the nightmare I had lived through for years and the trauma of our escape had exposed me to all the suffering and horrors this world had to offer. I was wrong. Nothing had prepared us for this first night on the trail. Descent from the cliff was like being lowered into the jaws of hell.” (pg. 255)

What I intend to do with this article is not to provoke anger or revenge, as Buddhism, the religion Cambodians share with their Thai neighbors, has taught us that revenge is won by taking no revenge ‘pea rum-ngoab doy ka min chong pea.’ My intent is to point out the undeniable fact that terrible things happened at Preah Vihear site three decades ago that involved the loss of thousands of Cambodian lives. The fact that no one has raised these events in discussions of Preah Vihear in the media is shocking. In fact, many Cambodians, especially those of my generation who was born in the 1980s, are not even aware that this horrible event took place. What they were taught was about the Khmer Rouge period, but not about what happened at Preah Vihear. The events at Preah Vihear, which was inflicted by the Thais, cost the lives of many Cambodians. But unlike the Khmer Rouge leaders who are being tried now, Cambodians do not even ask who was responsible for the people who died at Preah Vihear. So the question is, how can the Thais take the pride in arguing for the sovereignty of this site when this should be a site of shame for what they did?

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