Watching the violence on the streets of Bangkok, i was reminded of my little sojourn to the Preah Vihear Wat in April 2009 on an observer’s assignment. Why was this significant, you ask? Well, it changed my perspective on life after 3 days and 2 nights, and when we were forcibly asked to leave due to “border tensions” for fear of loss of life, it reinforced my perceptions that there is no such definition as a generic people. Perhaps just the call for a cause…that people take up.
To get a reference point, it is about 1.5 hrs drive from the famous Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Situated on the top of a mountain about 500m above sea level, this serene and holy temple had stood the time of many battles through the centuries, adapted its architecture from many dynasties, and with a breathtaking view across a valley over a cliff, presented itself as an almost unassailable fortress.
We had a tough 50 minute walk up majestic steps of carved rock to reach the top. Every step nearer the peak made more dizzying by the feeling of optical illusion playing on vertigo [don’t stand up and look to the side]. The view of the temple [wat] was worth every single step. Magnificent doesn’t even come close. Unlike the traditional square layout, Preah Vihear temple is long with a North-South facing, about the length of a football field. When the sun sets, and you are on the parapet of the prayer hall near the far end, the rays of sunlight cast golden strips inside the halls in an ethereal shadow play.
Before I get all soppy, let me get to the point.
Cast into this story of a beautiful shangri-la, are 2 countries: Thailand and Cambodia. Both are [yes, present tense] still locked in dispute over who owns this piece of history, now declared a UNESCO Heritage Site as of 2008. Our observation team had trekked from the Cambodian side, and parked ourselves by the mountainside on the south-west with an oblique view of the wat, watching Cambodian villagers and pilgrims stream up and down.
What we saw through our binoculars, destroyed my beliefs in empathy of the human spirit. Innocent unarmed Khmer men, women, children and aged were being fired upon by Thais from the other side of the mountain. If this was a Buddhist temple and both these countries were steeped in the faith of the Middle Path, how could this be happening? There were casualties, and we don’t imagine how they could survive the journey to the nearest hospital. The shots were not designed to scare nor maim… but to kill!
When 2 shots hit our location, bullets narrowing missing me, we moved out of our makeshift tower, and called for assistance: 6 pan-and-tilt high resolution digital cameras, and 3 laptops. This enabled us to continue observation without risk to life and limb, via digital footage. I was shaken and more curious than ever. I had a lot of questions for our Khmer scout. Why was this happening? Aren’t they all Buddhists? Isn’t Preah Vihear already a Cambodian treasure? Who are these Thai fighters? The army? Are they factions with an axe to grind?
If you recall some history, Indochine is a French term describing the 3-country territory of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Colonized by the French around the 17th century, few realize that the borders have been “shifting” gradually. In fact, our scout had this to say: the border had already moved 1.8km towards Cambodia, and the encroaching forces have camped in the valley below. The number of troops had roughly doubled and skirmishes were regular. Casualties among troops were up, as with civilians.
By the 3rd day, we were instructed to vacate our location and return home. It was also 3 days before the National Day of Hatred in Cambodia which falls on May 20. This date commemorates the end of the cruel and vicious rule by the Khmer Rouge, who I call the “Red Bandanas”. I had had face to face experience with them in July 1997 during Ranaridth’s attempted coup [that, is another story altogether]. As a norm, most foreigners who work in Cambodia would take leave and “escape” to a holiday out of the country annually before this, and election time. Call it preventive action, or self-preservation, I wouldn’t blame them.
So, what has all this got to do with the current Thai crisis, where militia, insurgents, and common folk are engaged in violent clashes? Just reflect on these facts:
> No foreign powers have ever conquered nor colonized Thailand since time memorial. [I’ve been told many times that the Thais are not one people but many tribes from many provinces, united only by the passion of causes]
> Most, if not all, maps, land title deeds, and government records, were destroyed by Khmer Rouge forces prior to, and during the coup in 1997.
> Ex-Thai prime minister of Thailand, circa 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra, was appointed chief economic adviser by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen. [can it be said that Cambodia is now aware of Thailand’s game plan?]
> It was rumoured that Thaksin made more than 20 Million British pounds when he sold Manchester City Football Club to Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi for about 210 Million British pounds in 2008.
> The “Red Shirts” who are pro-Thaksin, are calling for a disbandment of the current Thai cabinet.
Do we know the Thais better now?
While we are on the subject, here’s another play happening behind the scenes. Vietnam has been co-owning numerous farms in Cambodia, and selling goods and basic necessities at heavily Viet-state-subsidized prices to Cambodians. Local Cambodians cannot compete against >50% subsidized vegetables, and smuggled goods [the Mekong River is a major convenient border].
Question is, do we need to move borders to own territory?
It’s often what we don’t see, that make our passions powerless.