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Singing the border blues at O Bey Choan

Singing the border blues at O Bey Choan

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MADE FOR WALKING? The border marker that locals say appeared in 1990

but used to be several kilometres north.

EVERY couple of days, Duk Savut spends an hour or two seeking permission from Thai

military authorities to travel a road linking his hometown with the neighboring town

Prey Chan.

Some days, for no particular reason, the permission is denied, and Savut is unable

to fulfill his work obligations.

The source of Savut's irritation is not just the fact that he is the commander of

RCAF's Battalion Five in the border town of O Bey Choan north of Route 5, but rather

that he and all the residents of the area are adamant that the Thai-controlled road

in question has been built on Cambodian territory.

"The road was built in 1994 on what has always been Cambodian land," Savut

explained. "It makes me angry, but it's really not my affair."

For Savut and his neighbors, the contentious nature of the boundary dividing Cambodia

and Thailand is not just hearsay or the source of nationalistic breast beating, but

a reality of everyday life that residents have learned grudgingly to live with.

Located along the Thai border between border markers 44 and 46, the area around O

Bey Choan and Prey Chan is rife with examples of what residents insist is the predatory

intentions of their otherwise friendly Thai neighbors.

"I can count three specific incidents over the past twenty years in which the

Thais have deliberately advanced over the border line in this area to build and farm

on Cambodian territory," O Bey Choan's village chief, Sok Bunthoeun, told the

Post. "In 1980 they advanced one kilometer, in 1985 they advanced another 1.5

kilometers and in 1990 they advanced to the perimeter of the village."

O Bey Choan is used to being a disputed area under siege. In 1985 the village became

the focus of construction of the K-5 defensive line, a series of ditches, dikes,

minefields and bunkers designed by the Vietnamese to end incursions of Khmer Rouge

fighters stationed in camps inside the Thai border.

Just beyond the rusting remnants of the barbed wire fence that marked the K-5's old

outer perimeter, Bunthoeun points out what he says is very concrete evidence of Thailand's

"invasion" of the area.

"This is new ... this was not here until 1990," Bunthoen says, pointing

to the bullet-scarred but surprisingly modern-looking official border marker 44.

"This border marker used to be several kilometers north of this location, but

one day it just appeared here."

The border marker appears to be of far too recent construction to have been one of

the original seventy-three border markers placed along the boundary between 1904-1907.

More curiously, the positioning of the border marker inaccurately marks the boundary

between the two nations as East-West rather than North-South.

Savat supports Bunthoen's account of the mysterious relocation of border marker 44,

and says that Thai encroachment of the area has become a seasonal affair.

"In some areas around O Bey Choan, Thais have encroached right up against the

old K-5 earthen embankments to grow crops," he explained. "If you come

here during either the planting and harvesting season, you can easily see them."

According to Savat, the border incursions around O Bey Choan have even affected operations

of demining units of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), who are slowly clearing

the old K-5 area of mines and UXO.

"Two or three months ago, CMAC personnel came to inspect a minefield near O

Bey Choan, but the area they wanted to visit was inside what is now Thai territory,"

Savat recalled. "When they checked the location on their Global Positioning

System (GPS), they told us that the Thai border was actually another four kilometers

north."

Post efforts to confirm Savat's account of the GPS reading with CMAC were unsuccessful

Although he insists that the Thai incursions are "ordered by the Thai government",

Savat admits to having close relationships with his Thai military counterparts and

is anxious to avoid the possibility of conflict over the border.

"Civilians and military on both sides of the border know the situation...they

talk about it and agree it's not [the military's] duty to solve this problem,"

he said. "The Cambodian government must work with the Thais to solve this problem."

Officials of the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to respond to Post requests

to discuss the situation around O Bey Choan.

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