Friday, June 29, 2007
Whilst I'm on the subject, I'm currently reading a book called Climbing Back Up by Kim Chou Oeng, which contains his personal experiences during the Khmer Rouge years as well as a shocking description of a decision by the Thai authorities in 1979, to forcibly repatriate around 45,000 Cambodians. They were forced by Thai soldiers to climb down the steep slopes of the Dangrek mountainside at Preah Vihear through unmarked minefields as well as being shot at by both Thai and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Thousands died. This Associated Press article from 18 November 1999 recalls the period:
On a cliff in Cambodia old Preah Vihear temple has tragic recent past - by Grant Peck AP
Perched on a cliff top in northern Cambodia, Preah Vihear temple is a sacred 10th-century place dotted with profane reminders of the country's more recent tragic history. As tourists climb the 2,805 feet of crumbling stairs to the temple's four levels, they pass the wreckage of an army helicopter. At the summit, they share a spectacular view with two artillery pieces. The military hardware is left over from barely a year and a half ago, when the final 60 Khmer Rouge rebels occupying the location surrendered to government forces. Now, at a place where not that long ago the fate of uninvited visitors was death, tourists are coming again. Most of them - overwhelmingly Thai, many of them Buddhist monks - say they come to see the temple and the view, not the detritus of war. "When I see Preah Vihear and appreciate its beauty, my tiredness from climbing from bottom to top disappears," says Thanat Phukovareenukul, a Thai on his first visit. Cambodia was plunged into chaos and civil war after American bombings in 1970, and only in the past year or so has peace returned. An estimated 1.7 million people died. During the ensuing brief and brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands were killed in its attempt to create a peasant communist state.
Preah Vihear is a footnote to that terrible war, just as it is an archaeological footnote to the glory of the incomparable Angkor Wat temple complex that is Cambodia's proudest heritage.
It's even a footnote in international law - the object of a controversial 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that awarded it to Cambodia, even though topography suggested it should go to Thailand. The ruling accounts for the oddity of Preah Vihear being a Cambodian national landmark that is, for all practical purposes, accessible only from Thailand. The guerrillas who held the temple since 1993 rarely had to fire a shot in anger, because any attempt to dislodge them would have required a suicide attack up the steep, heavily mined Cambodian side.
But this little crag of Cambodia witnessed other horrors. The supposed remains of two Belgian tourists widely believed to have been abducted and killed by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in 1994 have been turning up over the past year, some of their bones offered for sale by traders hoping to collect a bounty. Investigators believe that other foolhardy tourists were similarly waylaid.
The Khmer Rouge don't hold a monopoly on cruelty, however. In 1979, Thailand was being flooded by refugees from Cambodia who fled as the Vietnamese army drove the Khmer Rouge from power. On June 8, 1979, the Thai army gathered thousands of desperate Cambodians from all over eastern Thailand and trucked them to the border at Preah Vihear. They were forced to march down the steep slopes back to their country. "The path down the mountains became steeper, the jungle thicker," British journalist William Shawcross wrote in describing the scene in his book "The Quality of Mercy." "Dozens, scores of people fell onto mines. Those with possessions had to abandon them to carry their children down. One group of refugees desperately pooled whatever valuables they had left, filled two buckets with them, and walked back up toward the Thai soldiers, carrying a white flag. The soldiers took the buckets and then shot the refugees." About 45,000 refugees were compelled to make the risky trek down the slope, Shawcross estimates. There are no definitive figures on casualties, but they are thought to have numbered in the thousands.
Visitors today are not so interested in such recent history, says Kraipon Royto, a lieutenant in a Thai paratrooper unit stationed near the temple. In his uniform, he serves as a volunteer tour guide. "The most popular question from tourists is if this temple was built at the same time as Angkor Wat," he says. Many historians think it predates its famous cousin. Supachai, a visiting Buddhist monk, is impressed that people so long ago could make such a beautiful structure. "We should be proud of the ancient wisdom which was so creative and powerful," he says. A handful of Cambodian soldiers, with their wives, are bivouacked at the temple, shyly selling cans of soda to visitors and collecting empties to sell as scrap. About 200 of their countrymen live and work at a market at the foot of the temple. Eng Tangheng sells exotic knickknacks and traditional medicines. "Whoever pays his respects to this temple will be lucky and be able to sell things better than his competitors," he says.
Footnote: I've visited Preah Vihear on two occasions, the first in March 2002, when I climbed to the temple, not by a road, but by crawling up the side of the mountain, hanging onto tree branches for leverage and hoping my footing didn't give way. It was a tough climb but I didn't have the fear of landmines or of soldiers shooting at me like the Khmer refugees did in 1979. Read about my visits in 2002 and 2005. Two other websites that you might find interesting are here and here.
Posted by Andy at 4:08 pm