The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia has always haunted and worried me. I once experienced the horrific movement, when thousands of people from both sides were ousted from their houses and forced to abandon their farmland and belongings.
The dispute heated up in July 2008, when the World Heritage Committee listed Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage Site. This was over 40 years after the International Court of Justice awarded the 6th century temple to Cambodia in 1962.
Thailand sent troops to areas around the temple, including a steady road leading to the hilltop temple, and claimed ownership. The stand-off between Cambodian and Thai troops lasted several years with armed exchanges, including the strongest one in February 2011, which damaged the temple.
From late April to early May 2011, the clashes between the two countries extended to another area along the border, which is around 300 kilometers west of the temple.
Covering those clashes was the most difficult experience of my journalism career. I witnessed over ten thousand Cambodian families evacuated from their beloved hometowns near the border for survival and seeking safety from the artillery’s shells. Likewise, on the other side of the border, thousands of Thai villagers also evacuated themselves for safety.
I arrived in the capital of the most northwestern province of Cambodia, Oddar Meachey on Day Four of the 14 days of armed exchanges.
Trucks and carts loaded with young children, women, cooking appliances, and supplies could be seen lining up all the way out of the provincial town, as both militaries kept shelling each other.
Cambodian authorities informed people that they needed to move up to 50 kilometers from the border to avoid Thai shells.
Some people did not have enough time to bring any food supplies or their belongings since the shells were dropping closer and closer to their homes.
A nearby pagoda where we stopped to interview people was full of refugees. I could see the fear in people’s faces and eyes, especially young children, who had never had any experience of war.
Some children were still wearing their school uniforms, white shirts with blue pants or skirts.
I stopped to say a few words to a small girl, who was sitting in a hammock with her aunties, but she could not speak due to her fear. She could only stare at me mutely with a terrified expression.
“She is scared, her mother passed her to me when we fled from our village,” a woman said. “Now, she probably misses her parents.”
As night fell, the entire city was left in the dark because electricity was cut off, and the whole province relied on electricity from Thailand. In the quiet night, I could clearly hear the sound of the shells dropping near the town and in villages along the border.
My colleague and I spent around 10 days near the battleground, traveling between the provincial town, hospitals, and villages near the border.
Around 10 kilometers away from the border, we hardly saw any villagers; the villages seemed like ghost villages.
On the way to the border, we clearly saw the destroyed houses and trees that had been hit by shrapnel. Some of them were burnt to the ground.
There were very few people in each village who had dared to stay and guard their property.
“We stay in the trench when they start shooting,” said one villager, who pointed to a hand-made trench near his home, which was covered by piles of soil and leaves. “I sent my wife and children out to a safe place, but I have to stay here to take care of our property.”
“Yesterday, there were a few shells dropping nearby while we cooked our lunch,” another man said. “We rushed to our trench with the rice pot.”
Of course, not all villagers were lucky and safe in their trenches. At the provincial hospital, many villagers received medical treatment after being hit by shrapnel.
Some children were injured after breathing in the smoke from the shells that had dropped by their trenches. One of these was a 3-year-old girl who also had her toes cut off by the shrapnel. She lay in a hospital bed next to her grandmother.
“It was crowded in the trench, her leg was outside the trench,” said her grandmother.
At least 10 people were killed during the 14-day clashes, while some houses and schools near the border were damaged.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries eventually improved after the Pheu Thai Party, which has close relations with the long-serving Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, was elected in August 2011.
Still, the disputed area near Preah Vihear is left in the dark, as both parties continue to claim the areas surrounding the temple.
In April 2013, the ICJ heard the case again concerning the area near the temple. The verdict is expected to be announced later this year.
I pray the verdict will not once again fan the flames of war between Cambodia and Thailand, which causes tragedy to people and children on both sides of the border.