Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Frogs and A Border War

The old border market, always bustling

The new market on Saturday, very quiet indeed

Oceans of unfilled bras

Sorting second hand clothes from Korea

The bales of clothes behind them are their livelihood

Light on water near the border

Diesel, Lisa and Cat at the lake

Not so far away from us here on the rice plains of Surin there’s a border war brewing between Cambodia and Thailand. It’s serious stuff and there’s already been hostilities with several fatalities and many injured.

The present tension arose over Cambodia’s successful application to UNESCO to have the temple of Khao Phra Viharn, just on their side of the border, listed as a World Heritage Site. It’s now an unnecessary spat about a tiny strip of territory.

The soldiers are dug in facing each other a few hundred yards apart on a 4.6 square kilometer piece of scrub that’s disputed by both countries close to the ancient temple. When Thai troops are there, the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen says they’ve invaded his country and when the Cambodians appear Thailand says exactly the same thing.

‘It’s mine!’ ‘No, it’s mine’, they keep saying, issuing tough threats of war from time to time.

As a result tensions are running high and two Cambodian soldiers were killed in a forty minute shoot out and seven Thai soldiers injured. [It now seems to be three Cambodians dead and two Thais.] Two Thai rangers have had their legs blown off by mines in an area that is said to be de-mined. The Thais are now accusing the Cambodians of laying new mines.

As if Cambodia hasn’t had enough of warfare and mines, they are now loudly rattling sabres at their much bigger neighbour.

However, Thailand’s Second Army commander, Lt. Gen Wibulsak Neepal is quoted in the paper as saying, ‘The situation should improve. Both sides have had lunch.’ And the front page of Sunday’s Bangkok Post (19 Oct) shows a Cambodian general ‘holding hands along the border’ with a smiling Thai officer. I do hope the general’s right.

About forty miles south of our village in Surin runs a line of hills called the Dongraks. If you look at a map of lower Isaan you’ll see that these form a natural border with Cambodia. You’ll also notice that the Thai side is well populated with small country towns and is criss-crossed with roads but that there’s very little on the other side. This region of Cambodia looks very poor indeed.

After decades of instability (Cat remembers as a child hearing the far-off sounds of heavy guns) the last thing they need is more of the same. Everyone benefits from cordial relations through cross-border trade and tourism but these have now slowed to a trickle and Thais living in Cambodia have been advised to return home.

So why fight over a tiny scrap of land?

While the whole of the border needs demarcation, the task has not been completed because of the civil war following the fall of Pol Pot and uncleared land mines. This should be a simple task that could be slowly completed without tension, so long as politicians do not stir up nationalistic disputes for their own ends. It can then be business as usual.

On Saturday Cat said she wanted to go to our usual market on the Thai side of the border at Chong Jom as she was going to buy a few hundred frogs for her latest frog farm. (She says she’s done it so this time they can’t possibly escape!) And I’m happy to see the market again as I want to see the current state of trade on the border.

This market used to be set up in a forest area near the border check points but now it’s been moved up to a huge new site on the main road and it’s hot and horrible and I don’t like it as much. Such is progress!

Chong Jom market is busiest at weekends and is a chaotic muddle of stalls selling Thai vegetables to Cambodians and cheap goods of all possible description. I find it surprising that you’ll see saloon cars registered in Phnom Penh covered in mud and packed to the roof with vegetables ready to make the tough journey back.

The other big item for sale is second hand fabrics. In half the stalls there’s huge bales of clothes and bedding shipped in from Korea and Japan, perhaps given to Cambodia as aid and then brought across the border to sell to the Thais.

They won’t be selling much though as my question was soon answered. The market was very quiet indeed and it’ll be some time before all the acres of bedding and brassieres will be sold.

Some of the stalls were shut up, their Cambodian owners apparently keeping well out of the way, while Thai buyers are perhaps unwilling to come so close to a border hot-spot. The children who gazed sadly at my camera, the bales of clothes unopened behind them will be having a lean time of it until the political problems at the border are sorted out.

After a market marathon when we and our friends all lost each other for ages as there was no phone signal, we then drove a few miles to one of our favourite lakes nestling in the hills. The light was beautiful and there was a pleasant breeze, but with hardly a soul around, the eating places were almost deserted.

Sitting in a grass roofed pavilion built over the water, this was as peaceful as it should be, though at the temple to the East they’re ready to die and all for a petty squabble stirred up by politicians and ultra-nationalists.

As so often, this border separates people of similar culture (Khmer is widely spoken in Thailand) and it was imposed on them by French Indo-China not so long ago during the colonial era. The temple nonetheless is a shared heritage and disputing a few scraps of land on the border now benefits nobody.

The damage to the two countries has already been immense in loss of reputation and revenue… as if this was needed in these difficult times.

We had a great day out at the market though and Cat, by the way, got her frogs.


Anonymous said...

Hopefully the region will get better. Be safe.

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