Preah Vihear: A tense wait and a school in the firing line

As Thailand and Cambodia await Monday’s ICJ ruling on the disputed Preah Vihear temple, Tom Metcalfe visited some villages on the Thai side of the border this week and found that, for the locals at least, peace is the priority…

BAN PHUM SAROL school in eastern Thailand has an unusual display of pieces of broken metal in the foyer. At first glance they look a bit like machine parts and water pipes. But a closer look reveals what they are: melted and twisted fragments of shrapnel, the fins from mortar bombs, and the casings of rockets fired from Katyusha launchers.

In 2011, this primary school a few kilometers north of the disputed Preah Vihear temple was on the front line of an escalating border conflict between Thai and Cambodian troops that claimed dozens of lives.

Not your average school display. Ajarn (teacher) Patchanee Yentijitsommanut of Ban Phum Sarol primary school with the display of shrapnel and rocket casings collected from the playground after the 2011 fighting around Preah Vihear. Pic: Tom Metcalfe.

The first warning came when a mortar round struck the playground in the late afternoon. Fortunately the children had already gone home, although some teachers were still at work. Over the next few hours, the school, nearby homes, and streets of the village came under heavier fire from Cambodian artillery.

A nearby high school was hard hit, with one school building completely destroyed. Some homes were set alight, several villagers were injured, and one man was killed as he tried to get his family to safety.

Today the bomb craters have been filled in, and the primary school has a grassy playground again. But the school display of spent weapons testifies to the dangers of life near the disputed border.

Like many villagers, schoolteacher Patchanee Yenjitsommanut fears that fighting could soon break out once again in the wake of Monday’s ruling. “I think there’s about an 80 percent chance that the village could be attacked,” she says.

Ajarn Patchanee has taught at the school for 20 years, and she’s lived through more than one outbreak of fighting near Preah Vihear. She says she’s sometimes thought of returning to her home town near Bangkok, but duty keeps her in the border village: “I wouldn’t go. I’m too worried about the children.”

Tensions along the border have risen ahead of the International Court of Justice ruling, due from The Hague on Monday, over the sovereignty of a Thai-occupied patch of land beside the Preah Vihear temple.

Politicians and the military on both sides are playing down the risk of fighting in the wake of the ruling, and have rejected reports that the border zone is being reinforced with troops.

Thai and Cambodian army commanders near Preah Vihear are said to be in hourly contact, in the hope of resolving any misunderstandings before they worsen. There’s even a proposal to ease tensions with football games between the rival troops — echoing the 1914 Christmas truce on Europe’s Western Front.

But many villagers are anxious. They’ve heard reports from Thai soldiers that more Cambodian troops have moved into the border zone. Meanwhile, local authorities have been building bomb shelters and drilling villagers to use them.

Ban Phum Sarol school has a new set of bomb shelters, a tangle of concrete bunkers and sandbag revetments in a shady grove of rubber trees behind the classrooms.

Ajarn Patchanee says the new shelters are welcome, but she fears they would give little protection against a direct hit. The school teaches 370 children, aged from 5 to 12 years, who have been practicing to take cover in case of an attack.

Ajarn Patchanee beside the school’s new bomb shelters, which are meant to accommodate up to 370 children and 20 teachers in case of an attack. Pic: Tom Metcalfe.

While politicians and the military try to defuse the threat of a new armed conflict, the Preah Vihear dispute remains a goad for nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border. Early this week Thailand closed access to the national park that surrounds the temple, citing concerns that patriotic protests could spark more fighting.

The last civilians allowed to visit the park before it was closed were protesters from the Thai Patriotic Network, a group often described as “ultra-royalist” which accuses the Thaksin government of selling out Thai sovereignty in a secret deal with Cambodia.

On Wednesday, the protesters had retreated to downtown Kantharalak, about 30km north of the border, where a handful of people stood vigil beside drooping political posters as patriotic songs played over a loudspeaker. They say they’ll march in strength to the park gates this weekend, and again on Monday when the ICJ ruling is due.

The closed gates at Khao Phra Viharn National Park, at the Thai border with Cambodia beside the Preah Vihear temple. Pic: Tom Metcalfe.

Some newspapers have reported that ultra-nationalism is taking hold in the Thai border villages. But none of the villagers I spoke to wanted to cast blame for the Preah Vihear conflict, and there was no sign of patriotic fervor in the villages closest to the disputed ground — no political posters or painted slogans, for example, and no more than the usual number of Thai flags.

But while there’s no evidence of nationalist unrest, several villagers expressed distrust and concern: distrust in the idea that a legal ruling from The Hague will change the heavily-armed reality on the ground near Preah Vihear. And concern that, if fighting does break out, their homes and families could once again be caught in the crossfire.

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and editor based in Southeast Asia.