In Sra Em town, amid the shadow of Preah Vihear temple, life went on as normal yesterday.
The market bustled with locals, people ate in restaurants, and the pick-up trucks carrying tourists to the 11th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site continued to wind up the series of switchbacks leading to Pouy Tady mountain, where the temple’s ruins are situated.
However, the normalcy that blanketed Sra Em yesterday concealed an undercurrent of deep-seated concern – concern that today’s ruling by the International Court of Justice on who owns the disputed 4.6 kilometres of land in the temple’s vicinity might prompt a repeat of the shelling and rocket fire that have previously broken out around the temple.
Sra Em resident Siv Sophaly said yesterday that he had already fled fighting around the temple once, and was well-prepared to do it again if the need arose.
“I have prepared my property already. If I hear the sound of a bullet, I will flee, because I don’t want fighting to occur like it did the last time – it makes me hopeless,” he said.
While Cambodia is committed to peace, Sophaly said, he could not be so sure about Thailand.
“I hope that war between Cambodia and Thailand will not happen,” he added.
Oum Ouy, who has lived near the top of Pouy Tady mountain for some 10 years, said that he too had prepared a few things, but for him, picking up and leaving was old hat.
“For my family, we have to wait to see,” he said. “If I hear shooting, I will leave, but I heard from a soldier that this time the war is bigger than before.”
In 2008, Ouy’s shop was riddled with bullets during fighting around the temple. He and his late wife fled the border, to nearby Preah Vihear town. Fleeing the fighting, he said, was an expensive proposition that he was not eager to relive, but it did give him experience, freeing him from the need to make as many preparations this time around.
“I get enough experience living along the border,” he said.
Like Ouy, fellow Sra Em resident Chhai Hokthon fled in 2008, and while she said she was worried, she wasn’t getting ahead of herself now.
“It is not easy to flee home, so I have to wait and see the situation,” she said.
The fear of violence is still prevalent in spite of repeated government appeals for calm, and assurances that both the Cambodia and Thai governments have reached an agreement to maintain peace and stability, whatever the court’s ruling.
“There’s a commitment between both the governments, in Phnom Penh and Bangkok, that whatever the verdict is, we will implement it and keep calm,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said. “It’s a new chapter between Cambodia and the Thais, and a new era of friendship and cooperation in that area. It’s very historical.
“We have no such plans to deploy, or to reinforce around there. We don’t want to [provoke],” Siphan continued, referring to Thai media reports of Cambodian troop movements. “We have complete trust from government to government. We don’t move anything. We know that only negotiations will solve anything – negotiations and the rule of law.”
Ou Narin, deputy commander of the 3rd Division, which oversees Preah Vihear, was part of a Cambodian military contingent that met with Thai military leaders yesterday morning to discuss the situation. Allegations of Cambodian troop movements also arose during that meeting, but were quickly quashed, he said. “Related to the troop movements, we already explained to the Thai side that we did not move troops as they accused,” he said. “They are confused. We only brought gifts to Cambodian soldiers and villagers who were victimised by flooding.”
The two sides had also agreed on three main points, he said: Troops must remain stationed in their normal positions, the two sides must respect the ICJ’s ruling, and the two sides must extend a measure of trust to each other.
However, an agreement between militaries might be only a half-measure.
The conflict around Preah Vihear has been cast by some analysts as primarily being an outgrowth of the increasingly volatile Thai domestic political situation. In 2008, Thailand’s support of Cambodia’s bid to list Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage Site prompted vociferous protests among Thai nationalists.
Relations between the two countries subsequently devolved to the point that multiple border clashes erupted in the vicinity of the temple.
The reaction to today’s decision will be further complicated by the Thai reaction to a near-universally unpopular amnesty bill in Thailand, which many – especially those opposed to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – see as absolving leaders of their responsibility for deaths that have occurred during Thai political upheavals since 2004.
The bill has already passed in Thailand’s lower parliamentary house, and activists have given parliament until today to scuttle the law, or face mass street protests.
“For Thailand, the ICJ decision on Preah Vihear comes at a critical juncture,” said Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak via email. “Any change in the status quo would play into the hands and perhaps become the key catalyst of the anti-Thaksin/anti-government protesters in Bangkok. They are against the amnesty this week and could well be for a government overthrow next week if the ICJ rules against Thailand.”
In a position paper in late September, Chulalongkorn University professor Puangthong Pawakapan suggested that backlash from nationalists over the ruling might be so great as to force the government’s hand, and that “another border clash is, therefore, likely to take place”. Earlier this month, Thai media reported that the Thai army’s top general had instructed protesters to avoid the area around the temple.
In 1962, when the ICJ first ruled that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia, the area was sealed against protesters, and vociferous calls for an attack on Cambodia were ultimately overruled.
On Facebook yesterday, current Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – Thaksin’s youngest sister – urged citizens to have faith in the government, and reminded Thais that the government had been “fully and continuously” representing its claims at the ICJ.
“The two countries need to maintain relationships between each other as well as the promotion of stability and prosperity in the ASEAN region,” Yingluck said in an unofficial translation of her statement.
She went on to ask that Thai citizens “believe that any action of the government will follow the steps of the law and [be] in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of the Thai Kingdom,” and assured citizens that the government would be “ready to listen to comments and suggestions of the people before they take any action to the benefit of the country”.
Meanwhile, however, security at the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok was simultaneously stepped up, according to reports in the Bangkok Post.
“[Both] governments are desperate to transcend and get past the ICJ decision,” said Thitinan, the political analyst. “One of the worst things that could happen for the Thai government is for the Cambodian government to be seen as conniving in cahoots with the Yingluck government in the event the ICJ rules against Thailand.”
It was just such a perception that led to mass protests over the temple since 2008, but sitting at the base of the ancient stairs that lead down from the temple proper to a border outpost below, 13-year border police veteran Hong Bunheng said he wasn’t sure how he would deal with any civilian unrest.
“I don’t know how to take measures against people protesting,” said Bunheng, his hands folded on his knees. “I just wait to listen to my boss’ orders.”
Bunheng’s house sits on land claimed by Thailand, and as he gazed at Thai officials milling around the area where troops from both sides keep watch some 200 metres away, he said that the Thais had begun regular helicopter flyovers in recent days. But more so than politics, he said, it would be his own experience protecting the border that ensured the peace was kept.
“Even though they will announce the verdict on November 11, I’m not worried at all, because I have enough experience to protect the territory, and I think it is that simple,” he said coolly.