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
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.
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
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
"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."