Thais, Cambodians Watch Their Side of the Temple Fence

preah vihear temple – Each time the Thai protest leader intoned the words “Phra Viharn”—the Thai name for Preah Vihear temple—howled jeers, scornful re­bukes and some laughs erupted among the 100 or so Cambodians who strain­ed to listen.

With the help of a large public address system blasting admonishments across the valley separating Thailand and Cambodia, the speaker led about 200 Thais who gathered near Preah Vihear on Saturday to denounce the listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site.

With Buddhist monks and nuns among them, the demonstrators waved Thai flags as the speechmaker returned time and again to the words the Cambodians on the far side of the border could understand: “Phra Viharn” and “Unesco.”

But the Cambodian audience at the temple Saturday was in an amused, festive mood.

Some used binoculars, and many had video cameras set on record, as they watched the Thai protestors from the shade of a grove at the foot of Preah Vi­hear’s stone entrance stairway.

“The nuns are at the front; they are the ringleaders,” laughed Eang Srey Mom, 19, from Prey Veng province as she peered at the flag-waving demonstrators, who were being kept well back from the frontier by Thai soldiers.

“It means nothing to us,” said another woman in the crowd of watchers, adding that the Thais could do nothing now that the temple is a World Heritage Site. “Preah Vihear belongs to us. We will just ignore them,” she added.

Cambodian authorities chained shut the small access gate to the temple from Thailand on June 22 when about 150 Thai protestors gathered near the frontier to show their opposition to Thailand’s support of Cambodia’s bid to list the temple.

Though the Thai government was later forced to retract its support for Cambodia, the World Heritage Committee nonetheless listed Preah Vihear at its 32nd session in Quebec, Canada last week.

A handful of protestors have been camped on the Thai side of the border since June 22, but Saturday’s small protest was the largest so far. And though it passed off peace­fully, tension was running a little high at lunchtime as security preparations began on both sides of the border ahead of the demonstration.

A force of between 50 to 60 black-clad Thai border troops had placed themselves at the top of the small embankment overlooking the locked gate, which promp­t­ed Cambodian police and soldiers to take up a symbolic position near the wooden bridge at the embankment’s base.

Sitting on a bench at the small bridge Saturday, RCAF Border Unit Lieutenant Mom Ry said that normally only 10 or so Thai soldiers were stationed on the Thai side of the gate, and the sudden troop build-up hadn’t been ex­plained to the Cambodian side. Earlier that morning, Thai troops had placed loops of razor wire a few hundred meters from the entrance gate.

“It is not usual,” Mom Ry said, though he added the Thai troops were likely only deployed ahead of the protest. “We think they came to protect their own people,” he said.

Shortly after 3 pm, with the Thai protestors gathering on the highway about 300 meters from the entrance gate, and being kept there by Thai police and soldiers, more than a dozen Cambodian police carrying batons, riot shields and wearing crash helmets de­ployed on the temple side of the gate. The riot police were then backed up by a unit of one dozen officers armed with assault rifles.

Noticing the Cambodian officers deploying at the gate, the Thai border troops moved away from the gate and nearer to the protestors. The Cambodian riot police stood down later, after the Thai demonstration ended.

Hang Soth, secretary-general of the Preah Vihear authority, said Monday that the riot police

were only deployed Saturday in

“preparation.”

The locked gate with Thailand also became a draw in itself, with both tourists and visiting government officials proudly having their photographs taken beside the chain and padlock that keeps it shut.

Defiance toward Thailand was in the air. Cambodian vendors at the ramshackle temple market said they didn’t mind not having Thai tourists, which had formed the bulk of their customers before the gate was shut indefinitely last month. The issue now is not economics, but nationalism, several vendors said.

“It is an issue of protecting our land, so we are not sorry,” said vendor Chou Leang, 53, adding however that with no Thai tourists to sell trinkets to, business has dropped off badly.

Donations and supplies from around the country have been sent to the 300 or so families living at the temple, which include those of the vendors, soldiers and police.

People living at the site said they are not short of food, thanks to the donations.

Khieu Kola, a member of a delegation of Cambodian journalists who raised money and delivered tons of rice and canned fish to the families Sunday, said the supplies were to alleviate the hardship of those living at the site.

“We want to live peacefully with our neighbors. We just want Thailand to respect the…Quebec decision,” he said.

As for the Thai demonstrators, they began to wrap up their flags and disperse at about 4 pm

Saturday.

But they didn’t go quietly, letting their speakers blare a continuous loop of wistful Thai patriotic songs that wafted across the frontier valley until long after they had all gone home.

(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)

 

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