Little time for sleep as Thai troops face a war of nerves with Cambodian military
Newspaper section: News
With Cambodian forces in sight on the other side of the border, Thai troops stationed near Preah Vihear temple and on Phu Makhua mountain never have time to relax.
They have been living on a knife-edge since the last round of clashes with Cambodian troops ended on Feb 15.
Despite a gentleman's agreement to stop firing that was reached between army chief-of-staff Dapong Rattanasuwan and Maj Gen Hun Manet, the deputy army chief of Cambodia, on Feb 19, gunshots and explosions have still been heard from time to time.
The explosions were believed to be landmines, sometimes detonated by Thai or Cambodian soldiers and sometimes by wild animals.
But the nerve-racking sound of gunshots is heard almost every day - usually the result of Cambodian soldiers firing guns into the sky.
"[Those] Cambodian soldiers lack discipline. Sometimes they are drunk and shoot a gun [up to the sky] to challenge us to return fire, but we have enough discipline to not respond to their game," said Col Thanasak Mitraphanont, head of the 23rd military ranger special task force.
There are two types of Thai troops deployed at the border. The military rangers are dressed in black uniforms, while regular soldiers wear camouflage uniforms.
"The Cambodian troops appeared more at ease with the black-clad troops stationed in sight than when they saw soldiers in camouflage because they have known each other well through long-time close coordination at the border," said Col Thanasak.
The 2nd Army has maintained three task forces near the disputed area, but not many soldiers are assigned to be on duty at each spot along the border.
They face the lonely duty of constantly watching the movement of Cambodian troops around the clock. They cannot listen to a radio because it would produce an unwanted noise. Nor can they light up a fire at night because the Cambodians would easily see where they are.
But to Sgt Chatchai Chaemchuad, who is stationed at an outer area of Phu Makhua mountain, a stray dog named Chao Si Ta (Mr Four Eyes) has always been good company.
The dog has one black spot above each eye, making it look as if it has four eyes. It had been abandoned by its owner and came to the soldier one day. Sgt Chatchai felt sorry for the dog and gave it some food - and the dog has never left.
The soldiers rely mainly on tinned fish and instant noodles. Once in a while, a special meal such as som tam (green papaya salad) is delivered to soldiers on the front line uphill.
As for bathing, soldiers can only take a shower once in a period of seven to 10 days. The best they can do on a daily basis for the sake of personal hygiene is washing their faces.
"We've scarcely slept because we must always be watching out for signs of danger. Sometimes Cambodian soldiers simply climb up the cliff," said a military ranger.
As long as formal negotiations between Thailand and Cambodia fail to bring any concrete agreement, several thousand Thai troops will have to remain at the border, with their lives at risk from danger that can erupt at any time in such a tense environment.