One year after Thai soldiers first established a presence at the pagoda, some say they have befriended their Cambodian counterparts, though others tell an altogether different story.
Preah Vihear Province
EACH morning, as Thai and Cambodian soldiers stationed near Preah Vihear temple awake and begin arranging their camps just 20 metres apart from one another, Major Apichat Poopuak and his men pack their lunches, cigarettes, playing cards, mobile phones and iPods and trek to their post at a pagoda on the grounds of the disputed temple complex.
Hardly a strategic position for the Thai soldiers, the pagoda, Keo Sekha Kirisvarak, lies smack dab in the centre of enemy territory. Nevertheless, this month marks a full year since Thai soldiers first began stationing themselves there, assuming a post that requires them to cross Cambodian front lines and pass armed Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) troops.
"Maybe it sounds dangerous, but it is no problem for my men," Apichat said in a recent interview. "My mission is not to fight. My mission is to communicate with Cambodian commanders to keep the peace."
Though they are unarmed, the men do not betray any concern for their safety. Some lie around in hammocks calling relatives and girlfriends. Others play poker. One man meticulously weaves fishing nets he plans to use when he returns to his home village.
Photo by: Rick Valenzuela
A Thai soldier at Keo Sekha Kirisvarak weaves a fishing net he says he plans to use in his village back home.
The Thai soldiers remain at the pagoda from 7am to 4pm. In recent interviews, some said they had formed friendships with their Cambodian counterparts, even eating meals or drinking coffee with them on occasion.
"The Cambodian soldiers are like my family," Apichat said as he hugged RCAF Lieutenant Colonel Tith Chhon, whom he called his friend. "I want peace because the Cambodian and Thai people are the same. We are like brothers."
Several RCAF soldiers said, however, that they considered the Thai soldiers' constant presence at the temple to be an insult.
RCAF Brigade 7 officer Ean Pov, who is stationed at the pagoda, said he was frustrated that he had received no orders to try to stop Thai soldiers from entering the pagoda each day.
"They walk around the pagoda's compound as if it were their land," he said. "If my commander orders me to stop them, I will do it. Now I am just waiting for the order."
Sao Socheat, deputy commander of RCAF Military Region 4, said last week that Cambodian officials had been trying to remove the Thai soldiers from the temple using peaceful measures, adding that they would need orders from their superiors to do anything beyond that.
Ten Mean, 22, was one of three Cambodian monks present at the pagoda when Thai troops first entered it on the morning of July 15, 2008, eight days after UNESCO announced that it had accepted Cambodia's application to have Preah Vihear temple listed as a World Heritage site.
At 11:35am, Tep Mean said he saw around 40 soldiers coming up the road towards the pagoda.
"When I saw them I was not scared. I am a monk. Even though the Thais had weapons, as a monk I am not involved," Tep Mean said.
Sok Chenda, 45, who has worked as a priest at the pagoda for eight years, said the number of Thai troops within the temple had climbed to 400 by the following morning, adding that they blocked the entry of Cambodian soldiers who had arrived in the night and camped inside a nearby temple.
Thai military deminers also arrived and began clearing the area in which the Thai troops now stay.
They may try to poison the monks... so i try to spy on all their activities.
By midafternoon on July 16, around 40 Cambodian soldiers had forced their way through.
Both Tep Mean and Sok Chenda said they feared fighting was about to break out as they watched Thai and Cambodian soldiers point weapons at one another near the entrance to the pagoda.
Ensuing negotiations between the two sides resulted in the agreement that has allowed the 10 Thai soldiers to enter the temple each day.
For the first three months, the Thai soldiers entered the pagoda fully armed.
But at 2:15pm on October 15, fighting broke out along the Thai-Cambodian border at Veal Antri, and the soldiers in the pagoda were taken captive. Their weapons were confiscated, and they agreed during negotiations that followed that they would begin to enter the temple unarmed.
Despite the surface calm, an underlying tension has entered the lives of Cambodians who stay at the pagoda.
Sok Chenda said he had not left it since the Thai soldiers arrived.
Photo by: Tracey Shelton
Thai soldiers end their day at the pagoda and head back to their camp.
"I will never leave it as long as the Thais are here," he said. "I always try to investigate what they are doing. They may try to poison the monks or put poison in the water, so I try to spy on all their activities."
Soeun Ravoeun, 26, who has been a monk at the pagoda for three years, said that while some of the soldiers were friendly and treated the monks with respect, others - either on purpose or inadvertently - had been disrespectful, with some even wearing their hats inside the pagoda.
"At the beginning they would offer food to the monks in keeping with Buddhist tradition, but this only lasted a few days," Soeun Ravoeun said.
"I am a monk, but I am not happy about this Thai presence. This is a Cambodian temple, a peaceful place. I am angry when they are here."
For his part, Ning Buntheang, a 40-year-old RCAF soldier stationed at the pagoda, said he had learned to live with the Thai military presence.
"At first I was angry, but now I am used to them being here," he said.
Sok Chenda was less sanguine, saying, "They are like beggars that many people chase away that just keep coming back. They are not wanted, but they will not go away. It will take a clash for them to stop coming."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY RICK VALENZUELA