Pause in Fighting Over Temple Between Thailand and Cambodia

Preah Vihear in the clear - for now

Published on 8 February 2011

Author(s): The New York Times/SETH MYDANS

Type:  News

From Friday through Monday morning, the two sides exchanged artillery and rifle fire that by various reports took at least seven lives and left dozens of soldiers and civilians wounded

Thai and Cambodian soldiers watched each other across a narrow, forested ravine Tuesday during a pause in some of the fiercest fighting in years in a lingering border dispute.

On one side stood the ancient cliff-top temple that is the focus of their dispute, where a few nicks and chips from artillery fire added new blemishes to some of its collapsing walls and pillars.

The Cambodian soldiers who occupy the 11th-century temple stand almost within shouting distance of a lookout post flying a Thai flag at the highest point across the ravine.

From Friday through Monday morning, the two sides exchanged artillery and rifle fire that by various reports took at least seven lives and left dozens of soldiers and civilians wounded.

It was the most sustained engagement since the current dispute began, in July 2008, after Unesco designated the temple a World Heritage site under the management of Cambodia.

Troops on both sides remained on alert Tuesday, and their governments remained hostile in a confrontation that has drawn pleas for peace from the United Nations and other Southeast Asian countries.

“I don’t know what is going to happen,” said a Cambodian intelligence officer in a shed near the front lines. “But if they come, we’ll fight.”

Across the surrounding hillside, cracked boulders, broken trees and a wide swath of blackened ground were evidence of a heavy barrage of artillery and the fires it caused.

Like other officers and soldiers in both armies, the officer, Capt. Sam San, 45, said the other side had fired first.

“We shouted at them, ‘Don’t enter Cambodia, or we’ll fight.”’ But, he said, they came anyway, into an area the Thais consider their own.

The temple, which is known as Preah Vihear in Cambodia and as Khao Phra Viharn in Thailand, looks out from the edge of a steep escarpment over a wide area of northern Cambodia. At its front entrance, away from the cliff, is Thailand, and, until the fighting, most visitors entered from the more accessible Thai side.

After the engagement last weekend, the portion of the temple closest to Thailand showed the marks of the fighting, with chips and chunks cut out of a column and of a wall of the fourth gopura, or entrance building, along the temple’s causeway.

A trail of blood through a carved stone doorway traced the last steps of a Cambodian soldier who was killed.

At the fifth and last gopura, chips from the walls were scattered on the ground, along with the tail fins of a rocket. There was no sign of the collapse that the Cambodian government had claimed.

Troops sat perched on the tumbled stones of the ruin, and a sniper rifle was concealed under a rock. A large placard nearby reads: “Cambodian National Commission for UNESCO.”

Three yellow packets of dried noodles lay at the foot of a chipped wall. A soldier said they were an offering to the soul of a photographer who had sold pictures to tourists and been killed in the shelling.

A young monk walked down an empty causeway, his bright orange robe glimmering against the gray stone.

“The ground was shaking, and the bunker almost fell in on us,” said the monk, Lon Seng Ly, 19, who lived with five other monks at a small contemporary temple halfway down the cliff on the Cambodian side.

“We had to lie down,” he said, describing the days of bombardment. “The sound almost blew out my ears.”

His temple, Keo Sikha Kiri Svarak, is part way down the winding road to the Cambodian countryside in an area that is also claimed by Thailand. Its loss would cut Cambodia’s access to Preah Vihear.

One apparent catalyst for the latest round of violence was Thailand’s demand that Cambodia remove its flag from beside the temple.

The temple, which is constructed of wood planks, and the rocks that surround it on the mountainside were riddled with the marks of shrapnel. Rifle fire had defaced a temple inscription and chipped a statue of Buddha.

Perched on top of the monks’ bunker, reinforcing it with new sandbags, a Cambodian soldier pointed across the ravine at the Thai flag and said, “That’s Thailand.” Then he pointed to the Cambodian flag that still flies above a temple archway and said, “This is Cambodia.”

See also on this website Cambodian anger over temple not exploding, for now

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