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Mindful of Battle, Soldiers Hew to Old Magic

The weapons and armor may be modern, but some of the oldest protections remain.

Cambodian soldiers have long employed magic to ward off bullets and landmines, inking their skin in intricate patterns, memorizing spells to help them in combat and investing themselves with protective scarves, belts and amulets.

Soldiers on the border say they have sought these old methods anew to protect them in potential battle with Thai adversaries, following a deadly outburst of violence last week at Preah Vihear temple.

Cambodian and Thai commanders are set to meet in Siem Reap Thursday, while the prime ministers of both countries are scheduled to meet in Beijing Friday, but soldiers said they have been outfitting themselves with old magic in case more fighting ensues.

Neung Buntheang, a Division 12 soldier whose neck was swathed in a blue protective scarf called a "yundra," said he sleeps with his AK-47 on a bamboo bed near the road that leads to the Preah Vihear temple escarpment.

His commander was killed in the Oct. 15 gun battles with Thai soldiers, he said, but he believes the yundra, will save his life.

"This yandra was given to me by a monk to protect me," he said. "We depend on these protectors."

Neung Buntheang and 20 other soldiers received their yundra Saturday night and are now stationed near the Keo Sikha Svara pagoda, 300 meters from Preah Vihear temple, which is at the center of the months-long border dispute and one of three sites of fighting Oct. 15.

"I have been in this profession for more than 20 years," said Kuoy San, another Division 12 soldier stationed at the pagoda. "I was in countless fighting, and I believe 100 percent that yandra and magic protection helps me."

Maj. Men Ly, an officer in the Preah Vihear provincial military, said 80 percent of soldiers in the Cambodian armed forces employ magic protection, including yandra, blessed waste belts and kerchiefs with tracings of their parents' feet.

At Preah Vihear temple, soldiers pray to a spirit named Grandfather Dy, a former commander hundreds of years old who battled ancient Thai armies. Others make prayers to the one monk living at the Keo Sikha Svara pagoda, who blesses them with water and provides them protective amulets.

Ros Chantraboth, vice president of the Royal Cabinet and a historian, said the walls of Cambodian temples are etched with evidence of similar beliefs, encouraging soldiers to be brave in battle. But he noted that if a person must respect the disciplines involved in protective magic.

Soldiers also admit that the charms are not a substitute for traditional military strategies, tactics and defenses, such as trenches, as a form of protection.

"Even if we have magic protection," Neung Buntheang said, "if we are not careful, we will face danger."