May 06. 2009
Jared Ferrie, Foreign Correspondent
The National (United Arab Emirates)

REAH VIHEAR, CAMBODIA — About 120,000 tourists used to walk over each year from Thailand to explore the ruins of this 11th-century Hindu temple, which lies just inside the Cambodian border. Today, coils of razor wire are strung across the wooden staircase that once formed the border crossing and now leads to a network of trenches and machine-gun nests.

The armed standoff between the two countries began after July 8 when the temple was awarded world heritage status, with Unesco, the UN body that helps to conserve mankind’s heritage, calling it “exceptional for the quality of its architecture”. The listing stoked nationalist emotions in both countries, and sparked a simmering border dispute that has occasionally turned deadly and stirred up fears of a wider conflict.

While political leaders from both sides have downplayed violent clashes, 10 months of talks have yielded no solution. And each country has been building up an increasingly stronger military presence around a disputed section of land near the temple.

Instead of camera-toting tourists, the border region is now crawling with troops, separated by as few as 10 metres at the closest point on the front lines. In October, one Thai and three Cambodian soldiers died in an exchange of gunfire. On April 3, three Thai soldiers were killed, and a Cambodian market at the foot of the temple burnt to the ground after being hit by a Thai rocket.

Thailand has moved tanks close by, along with special forces, according to local media reports. On the Cambodian side, four armoured vehicles were visible at a military base, where construction was taking place, within an hour’s drive of the conflict zone. Elite Cambodian units are also stationed at the temple. Soldiers said heavy artillery was positioned at the site, but journalists were not allowed to view the weapons.

Thong Krong, Cambodia’s tourism minister, said the drop in tourism at Preah Vihear represented a five per cent loss to the country’s total annual number of visitors. Day trippers used to cross from Thailand, because poor roads and transportation make the site hard to access from within Cambodia.

While noting that Thailand’s politicians are embroiled in a domestic political crisis, Mr Krong blamed the Thais for stalling negotiations. “We are ready to talk to the Thai side, but we call on the Thai side to talk.”

Chanida Chanyapate, an analyst at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based research centre, suggested that Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, is using the dispute as a show of strength against Thailand, which is the region’s dominant economic power.

“I always assume that this is more from the Cambodian side,” Ms Chanyapate said.

“But Thailand instigated something as well when the government objected to Cambodia listing the temple as a heritage site.”

Thailand’s foreign minister at the time, Noppadon Pattama, signed off on Cambodia’s petition to Unesco, but opposition party members (who now control the government) accused him of giving away Thai territory. Mr Pattama was forced to resign over the incident.

Ms Chanyapate said the scandal had more to do with Thailand’s internal political struggles than any legitimate claim to the Preah Vihear temple, which previous Thai governments had agreed belonged to Cambodia.

Mr Pattama was a member of the party supporting Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and now lives in exile. He had also been Thaksin’s personal lawyer.

“It was a personal attack on him,” Ms Chanyapate said.

Throughout the on-again-off-again negotiations, soldiers have been settling in around the area. At the front lines on the Cambodian side are many former Khmer Rouge fighters who were incorporated into the government army under a peace agreement in the late 1990s, which ended the civil war in which Khmer Rouge fighters held out against government forces after being ousted from power in 1979.

The region was a Khmer Rouge stronghold, and the last guerrillas to hold out against the government are said to have surrendered after taking refuge at the ruins of this temple.

Exquisitely carved figures and scripture dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva are still clearly visible in the stone walls of the temples, which are connected by staircases and wide walkways along an 800-metre climb. Set atop a lush, green escarpment that drops hundreds of metres to a seemingly endless jungle plain, its beauty rivals many of the world’s ancient wonders.

Some soldiers strode purposefully through the ruins with anti-tank guns draped across their shoulders; others relaxed in the shade of the temples, AK-47 assault rifles resting casually at their sides. The atmosphere seemed surprisingly tranquil for the site of an armed conflict.

As the afternoon light faded, the mood suddenly grew festive. The Cambodian prime minister’s personal comedy troupe – all members of his 4,000-strong bodyguard unit – had been dispatched on April 12 to visit the soldiers stationed at Preah Vihear.

When the comedy stars arrived a wave of excitement spread among the soldiers (the comedy group is famous throughout the country, often appearing on television). Soldiers rushed to get their pictures taken with the comedians against a backdrop of crumbling ruins.

Kor Oy, a member of the group, was stylish in her camouflage Capri trousers with gold sequins, a black T-shirt and sheer black leggings. She made her way elegantly up the long, stone walkway in matching black stiletto heels.

Brig Gen Prom Punleu, a high-level commander of the bodyguard unit who is stationed at Preah Vihear, walked out to greet the comedians wearing only a peach-coloured towel. Then he returned in uniform, and more photos ensued.

He was wearing the same towel that evening at his hut during a dinner of dried, salted fish – eaten with a chunk of watermelon – pork ribs, and bitter melon and fish soup.

On the wall, Brig Gen Punleu pointed to a map based on the 1962 decision by the International Court of Justice, which ruled that the Preah Vihear temple is inside Cambodia. Below that hung a map he said was produced by the Thais. It showed a different border, one that bulges into Cambodian territory to encompass the temple.

He accused Thai soldiers of making incursions into disputed land. “We said, ‘No coming in’. They fire at us and we fire back.”

Thai leaders have accused the Cambodians of instigating the April 3 clash.

That evening journalists were provided with hammocks and slept in a thatched hut along with several members of the bodyguard unit. Hom Hen said many fellow members of the unit had received training by US soldiers. He had been instructed in anti-terrorism techniques in Florida. He wore a “magic” band around his bicep to protect him from bullets.

At the foot of the hill, away from the breathtaking view at the bottom of the majestic stone pathway, are the front lines.

The Cambodians are dug in at the base of a ridge that widens into Eagle Field, a disputed 5 sq km patch of jungle littered with landmines that Cambodian officials say are left over from the civil war.

Thai soldiers are based at the top of the ridge about 30m away. Soldiers from each army can see each other through the trees. At the closest point, the troops are said to be separated by only 10m.

At the foot of the stone steps leading up to the temple lie the charred remains of a Cambodian market, which had long been resented by Thai nationalists, who claimed it was located in Thai territory. Cambodian officials said about 300 shops were destroyed, catching fire after a Thai rocket exploded. Mr Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, has promised to rebuild the market.

Kath Navy, a former resident said she lost US$30,000 (Dh110,000) worth of investment when the karaoke bar located in her home burnt down. Like other residents, she fled when the battle began.

“If I was in my house I would be dead,” Ms Navy said.

Duth Phearon, a soldier, said he was buying a SIM card for his mobile phone when he heard machine-gun fire. The 19-year-old, with an AK-47 slung across his back and wearing a jumper marked ‘Versace’, said he rushed back to his position and started firing back.

During the April 3 battle, Cambodian commanders ordered troops not to fire their heaviest weapons, said Em Saren, who was manning a large anti-tank gun mounted on a tripod about halfway up the hill. The barrel was pointed directly at the wide, paved road across the ravine on the Thai side of the border.

But soldiers at the front lines exchanged rocket, machine-gun and mortar fire. Bullets hit 66 stones at the temple, according to an investigation by the national heritage police, and grenade shrapnel also damaged the ruins during October’s clash.

Sent Phay, a heritage police officer stationed at Preah Vihear, said an escalation in fighting could cause severe destruction to the ancient ruins. “I’m worried that there might be a tank shell or artillery that lands on the temple.”

Cambodian and Thai political leaders insisted the clashes were minor and expressed confidence in a negotiated settlement.

“It happened because of a misunderstanding. The incident will not affect our relations,” said the Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, after meeting his Cambodian counterpart on April 10.

“I don’t call it a war … We are very sorry. We don’t want Cambodian or Thai soldiers to die,” said Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, during an April 4 speech.

But he previously threatened to turn the area into a “death zone” if Thai troops entered Cambodian territory.

Ms. Chanyapate, of Focus on the Global South, said the current Thai government would gain nothing from provoking further hostilities.

“It’s really an insignificant piece of land and Thailand cannot claim the temple,” she said, adding that both sides needed to put domestic politics aside to settle the dispute.

In the meantime, many Cambodian soldiers seemed to be settled in for a long deployment, some even bringing their families to visit. Aside from the occasional skirmish with Thai troops, time passes slowly, according to one captain. On the condition of anonymity, he provided a description of the average day of a soldier on the front lines at Preah Vihear: eating, going to the toilet, sleeping and waiting.