CAMBODIAN AND THAI SOLDIERS FACE OFF
It’s a very bizarre front line. About one hundred Cambodian soldiers, many of them former guerrillas of the communist Khmer Rouge, guard the Cambodian side of the line armed with aging Cold War-era weapons from Russia and China, while just a few feet away are an equal number of Thai soldiers and paramilitary fighters armed with modern US weapons. Only a small path with a couple of bamboo tables separates the two armies. A few hundred yards away is the 11th-century temple complex of Preah Vihear, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July. But the tranquil surroundings of the ancient sanctuary are still scattered with land mines left over from Cambodia’s 30-year civil war that ended in 1998.
Often on the front line, soldiers from both sides mingle with each other sitting at opposite ends of the tables. They share cigarettes and sometimes eat together. “We are friends,” says one Thai trooper while he shakes the hand of his Cambodian counterpart. But six days earlier they were trying to kill each other. After Thai and Cambodian patrols clashed in the jungle, the two sides exchanged heavy fire in an hour-long battle that killed two Cambodian soldiers and wounded ten from both sides. A third Cambodian soldier later died of smoke inhalation from repeatedly firing his Chinese-made B-40 antitank rocket launcher (RPG), while one of the seven wounded Thais succumbed to his wounds a week later.
TURF WAR OVER THE TEMPLE
Preah Vihear, constructed by Khmer kings whose territory in the 11th century spread far into present-day
Thailand, is perched on a jungle-clad escarpment that forms the natural boundary between Thailand and Cambodia. For decades it has been the subject of a sovereignty dispute between the two countries. At the heart of the dispute is a 1.8 square-mile piece of land near the temple complex claimed by both countries. The border has never been fully demarcated, but a map drawn by the French in 1907 – and at the time recognized by Thailand (then known as Siam) – places the temple on the Cambodian side of the frontier.
Following the withdrawal of French colonial forces from Cambodia in 1954, Thai soldiers occupied the temple, which prompted Cambodia to take the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In 1962, the court awarded the temple to Cambodia, but failed to rule on where the border line lies in the temple’s surrounding area. The ancient ruins have not just been a point of contention between Thailand and Cambodia. Due to its strategic position atop a 1,720-foot cliff, the temple complex became a pivotal battleground during Cambodia’s civil war – it was the last place to fall to the Khmer Rouge in the spring of 1975. After Vietnam toppled the radical regime in 1979, it was the last place the Khmer Rouge held on to before surrendering to government forces in 1998, ending Cambodia’s long and brutal civil war.
WHOSE WORLD HERITAGE SITE
The latest flare-up at Preah Vihear began in July, after UNESCO approved Cambodia’s bid to have the temple listed as a World Heritage Site. The decision sent thousands of Cambodians into the streets of
the capital Phnom Penh to celebrate, with Prime Minister Hun Sen calling the listing “a new source of pride for the people of Cambodia.” But in neighboring Thailand, the listing sparked widespread anger and re-ignited nationalist sentiment against Cambodia. Three Thai civilians – a woman, a man and a Buddhist monk – protested the listing by illegally crossing into Cambodia to plant a Thai flag on the temple grounds. The three were arrested by Cambodian soldiers, prompting several dozen Thai soldiers to cross the border, one of whom lost his leg to a landmine. Although the trio was released a few hours later, the Thai soldiers remained. Both countries sent reinforcements into the area, and in less than 48 hours, there were about 1,000 soldiers from both sides facing off around the temple complex. Trenches were dug and both countries began deploying heavy weapons and reinforcing other points along their border. For Cambodia, it was the largest mobilization of its troops and weapons since the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1998.
“WAG THE DOG” DEPLOYMENT
Tensions eased in August as both countries agreed to withdraw the bulk of their forces from the area. Apolitical crisis in Thailand soon overshadowed the border dispute, with violence erupting in the streets of
Bangkok between anti-government demonstrators and government supporters. The embattled prime minister was forced to declare a state of emergency in the Thai capital. Border talks with Cambodia were shelved and soon Phnom Penh began accusing Bangkok of re-deploying troops into Cambodian territory at Preah Vihear. Many analysts believe the embattled Thai government wanted to provoke the Cambodians in order to divert public attention from the political crisis in Bangkok to a foreign threat along
the border. “A war with Cambodia would encourage Thais to turn away from internal divisions and unite them to fight the external enemy,” wrote security correspondent Wassana Nanuam in an October editorial in the Bangkok Post.
The standoff turned violent on 3 October. Both sides blamed the other for firing first in a brief skirmish that wounded two Thai soldiers and one Cambodian, with the Thais firing M-79 grenade launchers and M-16s and the Cambodians firing B-40 rockets and AK-47s. Three days later, two Thai soldiers lost their legs to land mine explosions. Running out of patience in what Cambodians viewed as Thai aggression, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an ultimatum to Thailand on 13 October: withdraw from Cambodian territory in 24 hours or his forces would turn the area into a “death zone.”
CAMBODIAN WARRIOR SUPERIORITY?
“When Hun Sen says something, he means it,” says Capt Khemera Kuch, a Cambodian military intelligence officer stationed on the Thai-Cambodian border. “The Thais may have better weapons than we have, but we are experienced in fighting wars. War experience is something you cannot learn; you can only get it from war.”
With the exception of experience, the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) is far superior to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). The RTAF boasts a 300,000-strong force well equipped with modern weapons, most procured from the US, including F-16s and Blackhawk helicopters. The Army has some 330 main battle tanks, mainly M48A5 and M60A3 Pattons with 105mm main guns, and some 460 light tanks. The bulk of its field artillery consists of US-made towed howitzers.
The RCAF, on the other hand, has an estimated 140,000 soldiers, with the bulk of its equipment consisting of aging Cold War-era weapons from the former Soviet Union and China. Its limited ground arsenal consists of some 300 tanks, mainly Soviet T-54s and T-55s and Chinese T-59s. However, only half are believed to be operational. Its barely functional Air Force consists of about a dozen Soviet MiGs and a handful of aging transport helicopters. The bulk of its field artillery consists of old howitzers from Russia and the United States, while its most capable antiaircraft weapon is the shoulder-fired SAM-7 rocket. However, after 30 years of war, Cambodian soldiers are some of the most experienced fighters on the planet. Many RCAF soldiers currently deployed at Preah Vihear are former Khmer Rouge who surrendered there in 1998, who since have been integrated into government forces. Some of them have been soldiers since the age of 12. They say their hardened experience and intimate knowledge of the area – including where the land mines are – more than make up for their inferior weaponry.
CLASHING IN THE JUNGLE
But experience did not give them much of an edge on 15 October, a day after Hun Sen’s ultimatum expired and Thai troops remained in place in the disputed zone. Thailand refused to budge, with Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaeowkamnerd saying Thai troops would remain “to defend the country’s sovereignty.” After Thai fighter jets flew overhead in the morning, putting Cambodian forces on edge, heavy fighting broke out in the afternoon when Thai and Cambodian patrols clashed in the jungle. Battles ensued at three different places around the temple complex, with each side accusing the other of firing first. According to Thailand, Thai soldiers were peacefully patrolling their own territory when Cambodian soldiers fired at them with antitank rockets and sub-machineguns. According to Cambodia, Thai troops launched “heavy armed attacks” at three different locations to push the Cambodians back from positions inside Cambodian territory.
For Cambodian forces, their inferior weapons and equipment may have cost them. “The Thais have body armor but we don’t,” lamented one Cambodian soldier who was in the battle. “Some Thai soldiers we shot, but the bullets bounced off them.”
Despite the ultimatum, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister described the fighting as an “accident between soldiers.”
Nevertheless, this “accident” resulted in the first combat deaths of Cambodian soldiers in a decade, threatened full-scale war between Thailand and Cambodia, and prompted both countries to send in reinforcements of troops and heavy weaponry, thus increasing the risk of more “accidents.”
Perhaps caught by surprise after more than a decade of peace, the RCAF scrambled to move tanks, combat vehicles and heavy weapons to its northern border with Thailand, transporting T-55 tanks on civilian flatbed trucks and driving up Soviet-made BRDM-2 armored reconnaissance vehicles.
Unprepared for combat, the vehicles still had white-walled tires for use in parades.
BRIGADE 70 TO THE DEFENSE
Hundreds of Cambodian troops were packed inside old Russian transport trucks for the drive to the front. Reinforcements included at least 100 soldiers of the prime minister’s elite bodyguard unit, Brigade 70 – signaling the magnitude of the threat. “We have come here to protect the border and to protect Hun Sen,” said Col. Prear Bunsang of the elite unit that was deployed to Preah Vihear. “Thailand has attacked us so we have to defend our country.”
The Cambodian government has used the dispute to bolster its position in domestic politics. Nationalist sentiment from the temple’s listing as a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site and Hun Sen’s refusal to be pushed around by the Thais boosted his popularity in the run-up to national elections at the end of July, which saw his party win a landslide victory for a third straight term. According to Chea Vannath, the dispute is redefining Hun Sen as a leader who can stand up to his larger neighbors, although she believes it’s part of his natural evolution as a politician, not a calculated decision. “He’s a seasoned politician, he’s accomplished a lot of things…so the next step is for him to [assert himself] to protect Cambodia’s national sovereignty and integrity,” she says, adding that the dispute has united the country. “In Cambodia, nobody doubts whom the territory belongs to, there’s no friction, no fragmentation, just one belief. Everyone in Cambodia knows that the territory belongs to Cambodia,” she says.
Back on the front line, soldiers from both sides have put the clashes behind them and have resumed their friendly relations with each other. They sit at the bamboo tables, chat, share cigarettes and food, and surprisingly hold no grudges against each other despite the bloodshed. “I want to be friends [with the Thais],” said one Cambodian soldier whose friend was killed in battle six days earlier. “We fight because our commanders tell us and we have to obey,” he added. “I’m not angry because this is war.”