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Fighting Renews Fears, Memories of War

Since the clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops along the border last week, in markets, cafes, schools and even betting parlors in Phnom Penh, Cambodians have been reminded of war.

War lingers the memories of those who fought in the decades of strife Cambodia is emerging from or in the fears of younger people to whom it is just an idea.

Even before the fighting, which claimed three Cambodian lives and led to an entrenching of soldiers along the border near Preah Vihear temple and other sites, there were reports of near-violence, of the movement of troops, tanks and artillery, of flyovers by Thai jets and helicopters, and of other shows of force.

Rhetoric by Cambodian government officials, that increased provocation by Thailand could lead to full scale conflict, worried Cambodians even more, despite remarks by Prime Minister Hun Sen Friday that the two sides were committed to resolving the border dispute amicably.

In recent interviews those who survived Cambodia's wars were more afraid of the possibility of war's resurgence than the younger generation.

Demobilized soldiers were reluctant to return to war, while students and other youths said they were willing to volunteer if full-scale war broke out with Thailand.

Luon Rith, 49, a former officer who demobilized from Kratie province's Military Region 2 in 1997, said soldiers had asked him to come back since the beginning of a military build-up on the border, in July.

"Information came to me that they wanted me back," he said one recent morning, as he ate a bowl of noodles in a Phnom Penh market. "They asked me, 'Do you want to come back?' I said I didn't. I don't feel the desire to go back…. I feel it would be difficult to fight the struggle again. I am fed up, after seven or eight years of war. War is hard and must be avoided."

Chheung Panha, a second-year student at the Phnom Penh International University, said he would volunteer to join the army if the border conflict turned bad enough to close schools. He doubted full-scale war would come, however.

"If the conflict became serious and I could not study, I would volunteer to join the army, too," he said. "Hopefully not, because it is not serious. We should be defending ourselves while seeking a judicial solution."

Meanwhile, he said, he felt sorry for soldiers stuck on the border, with the public show of support through food and other supplies dwindling.

"We are inferior to Thailand in all fields—economically and militarily," he said. "They have more modern and stronger weapons. We have little, old weapons."

Sath Savuth, another student at the university, said the government must work to maintain the morale of Cambodian soldiers.

"Another important thing is that the present leadership, the government, should pay attention to take care of the temples along the border," he said. "And especially [find] volunteers to fight with the Thais. I don't think a war could take place."

At a Cambosix betting parlor in Phnom Penh, four young men who declined to be named said they would volunteer to join a war, though they seemed to be enjoying peace and making bets.

Luon Rith, the former officer, said he appreciated the spirit of the volunteering youths. A modern war, he said, might be different from his generation, when battles claimed the legs, arms and lied of fighters, who battled without food or water.

But Cambodia's new soldiers need more experience and training, he said. Were he to join a fight, he would be in danger himself, having forgotten how to read battlefields and mine fields, he said.

"We are now different from the old days," he said. "During the State of Cambodia [in the 1980s and early 1990s] people were arrested and forcibly recruited into the army. Now it is difficult to look for volunteer soldiers. I support them."

Yon Seun, a demobilized soldier who used to carry a B-40 grenade launcher and overheard Luon Roth, stopped to have his own noodles.

Nowadays, he said, Cambodia would not be able to defend against a full attack by Thailand, even if Thai soldiers are inexperienced, he said. Their planes would bomb the front lines and cut off the supplies to the Cambodian troops, he said.

The two demobilized soldiers said they felt lucky they were not seriously injured or killed in their own wars, though they had seen dozens of the comrades suffer these fates. Their own families had worried about whether they had died, spending money to travel and find them, or news of them.

Such times are foreign to young men like Chin Pech, 19, who earns about 30,000 riel per month pulling a trash-collection cart in Phnom Penh.

"Seeing other youths join the army, I support them," he said. "Being a Cambodian child, I feel hurt to hear that [the Thais] invade us. But I probably cannot go. I am the only son with my mother."

Former soldier Dy Chetr, 49, who lost one leg to a landmine and recently started selling books from a basket to tourists, said war had many costs.

"Before I lost my leg, I felt to myself, 'If I lose my leg, I will shoot myself dead,'" he said. "But when I lost my leg, I could do nothing. I only worried too much. I had everlasting thoughts, from one thing to another. What will happen to my children? My wife? I worried with tears. But a long time has past, and I became used to it."

He was lucky in at least one regard, he said. Where many injured or disabled men lost their wives, his had not gone. "My wife is my relative," he said. "We are cousins."

As to the threat of war today, Dy Chetr agreed with four other disabled soldiers touting on Phnom Penh's waterfront: "War is too strong to face. It is not a like a battle of knives or axes. These weapons are too strong, and you cannot see them."