PREAH VIHEAR: They may wear flip-flops, but most the Cambodian forces facing Thai troops at a border standoff are battle-tested former Khmer Rouge fighters, officers and soldiers said yesterday.
More than 500 Thai troops and well over 1,000 Cambodian soldiers have been stationed for a week around a small Buddhist pagoda on the slope of a mountain leading to the ruins of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple.
The mood at the standoff was calm yesterday as each side chatted, snapped photos and shared meals with each other, a stark contrast to Thursday when they pointed guns at each other, though no shots were fired.
The former Khmer Rouge guerrillas said they were eager to fight and the Thai troops should not be fooled by their appearance – the Cambodians wear flip-flops and sport Cold War-era guns.
“They said we are small and are wearing flip-flops, but with flip-flops we can move very quickly. We know the area very well. We are small but strong,” said Doung Tay, 32, who began fighting for the Khmer Rouge when he was 12.
The Thai troops, with modern arms and uniforms, appear better prepared.
“The Thai soldiers only know the theories of fighting. They said that we are small but they don’t know that we are wild chickens,” said Yan San, 47, who became a Khmer Rouge soldier when he was 15.
“I want to fight with the Thai soldiers,” he added.
Brigadier Chea Keo, commander of forces in the disputed area and himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier, said more than 60% of his troops fought for the brutal Marxist regime which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
Leaders from both countries have ordered troops not to fire and called for a peaceful solution. Thai and Cambodian defence officials met yesterday in a bid to resolve the crisis which broke out last week.
Nearly 2mn people died from starvation, overwork, torture and execution during the four-year Khmer Rouge regime before it was swept from power by Vietnam-backed troops.
Preah Vihear temple was the scene of the final surrender of several hundred remaining Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces in 1998.
The current confrontation around Preah Vihear began after three Thai protesters were arrested for jumping a fence to reach the temple last Tuesday.
The World Court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia. But the most accessible entrance to the Khmer ruins lies in Thailand and 4.6 sq km of the surrounding land remains in dispute.