Feb 11 2011 by Johnathon Menzies, Stirling Observer Friday
FORMER Stirling High School student Nicholas Burton has spoken of his shock as tensions flared between Thailand and Cambodia recently.
At least five people were killed and thousands left the area after troops clashed in-and-around the 11th-Century Preah Vihear temple.
The initial trouble began on Friday, February 4, and lasted for four days but the fall-out continues to be felt.
The following is a first-hand account of Nicholas’s thoughts and feelings during his time in Kantharalak, a town approximately 25 miles from the clashes.
IT IS now Tuesday evening, and things have calmed down considerably.
Throughout the day, traffic around Kantharalak was non-stop. The majority of it consisted of families fleeing the town for the perceived safety of the north.
I spoke to two refugees, a local shopkeeper, a soldier, two Thai journalists and a foreign reporter.
Although their attitudes and concerns differed considerably, two major themes ran through what they told me.
In complete contrast to the dozens of pick-ups racing out of town laden with families’ entire worldly possessions, all seven agreed that Kantharalak was perfectly safe.
The journalists reckoned the Cambodians didn’t want Kantharalak, and were only interested in the temple and the disputed border area around it.
The soldier, shopkeeper and refugees were certain that the Cambodians couldn’t reach Kantharalak if they tried, citing the constant stream of Thai reinforcements seen going through town in the direction of the war zone as proof.
On this point the Thais sounded more convinced than the visitors from overseas, giving far less credence to the abilities and effectiveness of the Cambodian army.
Everyone except the visiting reporter was certain of this – the Cambodians were the aggressors, and they were, to a man, hated.
Hearing a refugee who has been forced from their home – and quite possibly shelled – referring to the Cambodians in such strong terms was not unexpected.
But it was rather surprising to find well-dressed Bangkok journalists wearing the same grim mask and spitting their words with equal venom.
Although my Thai does not yet cover too many swear words, the anger in their voices and hard-set expressions more than conveyed their feelings.
Before the conflict began every school in the region had students of Cambodian descent.
At least two of my own students are, and teachers at the local high school, Kantharalak-Vittya, say the same about theirs.
Kids being kids, ‘Cambodian’ was openly used as a kind of mocking term, as almost universally Cambodians are poorer than Thais.
However, there was no real malice behind it. This is probably owing to the fact that quite a few families here in the borderlands actually speak Cambodian or Laos better than they do Thai.
The area is very much a ‘melting-pot’ of these three main ethnic groups and, as far as we could tell as outsiders looking in, everyone more or less got on okay.
So you can imagine it is something of a shock to hear that within five days the Thai attitude has gone from slightly snobbish to one marked by passionate anger.
It is very unlike them to speak with such force, especially in the company of people from overseas.
I believe the change in attitude stems from the fierce nationalism which pervades Thailand, which is far more integral and important than in most Western nations.
The Thai people are very, very proud of their history, and in particular the fact that their sovereignty and independence have been successfully defended for hundreds of years.
So it’s perhaps understandable why a foreign force – especially one thought of as generally poorer – allegedly launching this assault might well cause locals to turn on each other.
I cannot help but wonder what will happen after this crisis is over.
Will the Cambodian population of Kantharalak return? Will they be welcome? Will the ‘melting-pot’ society here ever be the same again?
On one hand, it is well-noted that, in Issan, even the most serious of matters is usually met with a laid-back attitude.
But, conversely, it’s difficult to imagine them forgetting this conflict any time soon.
The passion and venom with which the Thais I spoke to today decried Cambodia leads me to think that the latter, sadly, is the most likely outcome.