Published: July 31, 2008 PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia: The foxholes, minefields and straggling lines of muddy trenches with machine guns poking out make the scene near the 900-year-old Hindu temple here look more like an image from World War I than the latest flare-up of Indochinese conflict.
Still, this disputed no man’s land could never be the site of spontaneous soccer matches between enemies like those on the Western front – there’s room only for a game of ping-pong or perhaps badminton, if anyone felt inclined, which is unlikely.
The trenches manned by hundreds of Thai and Cambodian troops are from 3 to 25 yards apart. If shooting broke out on what the Thais wryly call the “samoraphum” or “battlefield” – a Sanskrit word also used in Khmer – there would be carnage. But today the mingling soldiers exchange cigarettes and snap images of one another with their mobile phone cameras, which they use to reassure their families at home.
Thailand and Cambodia both claim the 1.8 square miles of land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple, which has belonged to Cambodia since the International Court of Justice ruled in its favor in 1962, and the quarrel has raised nationalist heat in both countries. While both sides say they will refrain from hostilities, the propinquity of the forces spells real risk of mayhem if someone accidentally looses off a shot.
So far, there has been only one casualty – a Thai captain who lost a leg to a mine, probably planted in an earlier war against another invading army, Vietnam’s. Historically, Cambodia has long been plagued by land-grabbing from neighbors east and west.
The soldiers here are armed with an eclectic mix of weapons. Thais have state-of-the-art American rifles; the Cambodians are using the stuff of past conflicts, especially Chinese-made B40 rocket-launchers from the Vietnam War era. The B40s were unstable then, so what are they like now?
It is the wet season, and the rains lash down, soaking everything. “We are living like worms,” a Thai soldier says of life in his trench.
The Thai soldiers seem to go out of their way to be polite, almost as if they were embarrassed to have made an armed entry into Cambodian-held territory, whether or not it is disputed land. You could call it a gentlemanly invasion.
But the Cambodians have deployed former forces of the Khmer Rouge – war-hardened guerrillas who brought on the “Killing Fields” of the 1970s. They are now integrated into Cambodia’s armed forces, even though their onetime leaders currently face trial at a war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh.
From Thailand, Preah Vihear is an easy drive along a tarred road. Although the border is now closed here, there is a small entry track that is kept open to bring in food prepared in Thailand for Thai troops.
On the Cambodian side, there’s a gruelling 12-hour haul over unpaved roads from Phnom Penh, then a steep, almost vertical uphill climb of two-and-a-half miles to the temple, built on an outcrop 1,600 feet up in the Dangrek Mountains. The view over Cambodia is now one of deforested jungle, almost bereft of wildlife.
When they are asked which country the territory around the temple belongs to, the oh-so-polite Thai soldiers shrug and say: “I don’t know,” or “It’s disputed,” or “it overlaps.” None of them said, “This is our land.” Then they invite a visitor to join in an imported meal.
Asked how the stalemate will all end, one Thai veteran points toward heaven and says: “Only the higher-ups know.”
The Thai soldiers seem to have an unspoken sense that they are pawns in a political game between the Thai government and its domestic opposition.
The Cambodians are more bitter: Many say that they have been invaded.
At a Buddhist pagoda – both Cambodians and Thais share the Theravada branch of the religion – the Cambodians pray for Thai defeat. “May the mosquitoes give them malaria so they all go home,” one one asks.
Cambodian tourists come with food for their country’s troops and pose in dramatic postures with loaded B40 rocket-launchers borrowed from the troops – even though an accidental discharge could ignite disaster.
The Cambodians don’t seem to realize that they too are pawns to posturing politicians: Hun Sen, the Cambodian strongman, used the temple standoff to gain support in the election last Sunday in which he has already claimed a major victory.
This will be borne out if the Thai-Cambodian confrontation suddenly ends – possibly in compromise – after official confirmation of Hun Sen’s victory. Otherwise, the confrontation will bog down in the cloying mud, with an ever-increasing risk of an escalation that no one wants.
James Pringle covered the Vietnam and Cambodian wars.