Cambodian and Thai soldiers on the front line at Preah Vihear say they are slowly resuming friendships struck up over the three-month standoff, but they claim they are still ready to fight
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
A soldier walks through the ruins of Preah Vihear temple carrying a B-40 rocket last Saturday.
The atmosphere remains tense but calm following last week’s fighting.
Thai soldiers reluctant to take posts
Some 20 Thai troops stationed at the scene of last week’s Thai-Cambodian firefight, which kicked off near the Keo Sekha Kirisvara pagoda, are refusing to return to their posts. “They dare not come back because it is a dangerous place,” Meas Yoeun, deputy military commander of Preah Vihear province, told the Post Wednesday. After a meeting between Thai Colonel Chayan Huay-Soongnern and Cambodian commander of Brigade 12, Srey Doek, a day after the clash occurred, an agreement was reached that 20 Thai troops would be allowed to return to their camp some 200 metres east of the pagoda while 10 Thai troops would be permitted to stay at the pagoda itself. Since then, the military leaders have met regularly in a bid to prevent the tense situation from escalating to open conflict again. At least one Thai soldier has died of wounds sustained during the brief firefight, and a number were injured but the seriousness of their wounds is unclear. Three Cambodian soldiers have died and a number more were wounded during the fighting. CHEANG SOKHA
AS the sun rose over the border front line camp in Veal Antri last week, the mood was strangely calm. Thai soldiers began filtering back to their tents to collect possessions they had left behind when they fled the area after an hourlong shootout the day before.
Cambodian soldiers crossed into the Thai camp to share cigarettes. Another group of Thai and Cambodian soldiers greeted each other warmly, with those originating from border regions being fluent in both Khmer and Thai.
But there was also an underlying tension, with many soldiers hanging back and looking on with suspicion as they held their weapons at the ready.
"We [Thai and Cambodian soldiers] are friends. Our commanders are friends. But when we get the order to fight, it is not difficult," 37-year-old Suwaphorn Chunkathamphak, a major in the Thai army, told the Post on Saturday during a lunch he shared with his commander, the opposing Cambodian commander and lieutenants from both sides of the conflict.
"We live together on the front line. We do not want to open fire on these soldiers, but we are well-trained. We know what we have to do."
Suwaphorn, who joined the Thai army 12 years ago, explained the conflict that flared up in July in simple terms.
"Cambodian and Thai maps overlap. This is the problem," he said wryly.
To him, no one is right and no one is wrong. Both sides have a strong case and both are convinced that the territory in dispute is rightfully theirs.
Suwaphorn said he felt there would be no further battles, but could not estimate how long the standoff would last. After three months camping on the front line, he said that life is not difficult and he is happy to stay until the problem is resolved.
Chupith has been a soldier in the Thai army for 30 of his 48 years, and grew up in a village close to the Cambodian border. He spoke of his Cambodian counterparts with fondness.
"Sometimes we play cards together - Thai against Khmer. Sometimes we eat together," he said, pointing to a large table located between the two camps pierced with bullet holes from the recent fighting.
As is the case with most Thai soldiers who engaged in the brief battle on October 15, the fighting that left three Cambodians and one Thai dead was Suwaphorn and Chupith's first experience with combat.
Across the conflict zone, 45-year-old Mom Kiri is no stranger to the battlefield. Like many at the Cambodian front line, he is an ex-Khmer Rouge cadre and has been fighting in the jungle since the age of 12. He said fighting has been his life - he doesn't have to think about it.
"It's like a game," he said with a smile, as he held three B-40 shells and a rocket launcher over his shoulder.
Standing by with ageing, rusty AK-47s, a group of three experienced ex-Khmer Rouge fighters added that although their weapons may not look as new as the Thais', they were more practical for jungle fighting. And they knew how to use them very well.
Fear and uncertainty was more palpable among the local civilian population, many of whom had continued living in the Preah Vihear market at the foot of the temple complex despite the army presence.
After heavy gunfire erupted in the area the previous day, many were packing their bags to leave, while others quickly hustled their families and possessions behind the protective stone walls of the temple.
The ancient ruins, once swarming with tourists, are now cluttered with cooking pots, TVs and household goods. In the days following the gunfight, the complex transformed into a hub of activity as meals were prepared, children played and clothes were washed and hung on the temple walls to dry.
Siv Oun, district chief of the area that includes the Preah Vihear market, explained that he was showering when the blasts began to sound around him. "I was still putting on my pants as I ran out the door," he said with a laugh as he imitated the difficult run for the temple he had made with his trousers around his angles.
"[The market stall holders] left everything open and just ran for cover in the temple. Now everyone is preparing to leave. It's not safe," he said, as his family busily packed their belongings to leave that afternoon.
Yock Bun Thoeun, border police commander for Battalion 795 that covers the market area, said the Thai soldiers where firing right into the village where many civilians were fleeing. He pointed to the spot where a rocket hit and a nearby table was split apart.
At the base of the mountain, around four kilometres downhill from the front line, 12-year-old Srey Pek and family cowered in their home behind locked doors during the fighting, until the sounds of gunfire died down.
"I was very scared. It was so loud. There were a lot of explosions. We hid under the bed inside and locked the doors," she said.
Her family still runs a modest restaurant at the foot of the mountain, which is now only frequented by soldiers and journalists.
When asked why they have not fled like so many others in the town, Srey Pek answered, "This is our home. This is our business. Why would we leave?"