Sunday, 1 May 2011

Preah vihear at ground level

via CAAI

Exploring the army's role in the dispute and the lives of soldiers on the front line

Published: 1/05/2011
Newspaper section: Brunch

The re-emergence of the armed forces to the public fore since the last coup has piqued curiosity about the secret world of the Royal Thai Army. Was the recent breakdown of a pricey satellite a sign of a looming coup? If so, when will it take place?

The term "Big" (used as a reference to Orwell's Big Brother in Thai) has become more common in casual conversation.

Over the past two decades, we have been using the term "Big" with a sense of dread or cynicism.

One person who deserves credit for unveiling the secret world of the army is Wassana Nanuam, a veteran news reporter at the Bangkok Post.

Wassana has been covering the military for over a decade. She has forged ties with a cadre of soldiers _ many of them real movers and shakers in the country.

A true insider, Wassana has penned several critically acclaimed books, starting with her famous interview with Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon, the coup maker who was involved in the civilian massacre of Black May in 1992.

She has also written about privy councillor and statesman Gen Prem Tinsulanond and former prime minister Gen Surayud Chulanont, not to mention behind-the-scenes accounts of the last coup, and the use of black magic among politicians.

Lap Luang Prang: Suek Prawiharn (Secrets, Deception and Masquerade: The Battle of Preah Vihear Temple) is her latest book, an up-to-date account of the military operations of Thai and Cambodia armies fighting over 4.6 square kilometres of land around the Preah Vihear temple.

LAP LUANG PRANG: SUEK PRAWIHARN: (Secrets, Deception and Masquerade: The Battle of Preah Vihear Temple) Wassana Nanuam, Post Books, 375pp. Available in Thai only at all good bookshops for 240 baht.

Like her previous books, The Battle of Preah Vihear Temple is loaded with exclusive and behind-the-scenes details.

The book serves as a who's who of Thai-Cambodian geopolitics. Readers will be enlightened on the mindset, nature and background of important players _ army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha; Second Army commander Lt Gen Thawatchai Samutsakorn, or "Big Yerm"; and more importantly, the up-and-coming Maj Gen Hun Manet, son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and possibly the country's next prime minister.

The book will help readers make sense of the confusing issues related to the Preah Vihear temple skirmishes.

Chapter by chapter, the writer explains in layman's terms the importance and background of the temple, and pertinent details including problems with the 1:200,000 map and the controversial memorandum of understanding that Thai and Cambodian authorities signed in 2000.

Readers will understand why gunfire resumed on Feb 4 this year when Thai soldiers built an extension from the highway close to the entrance of Preah Vihear, and why soldiers on both sides reacted furiously to trivial issues such as the placement of banners and flags. The writer provides background on military diplomacy at the regional and international levels.

Indonesia is providing military assistance to Cambodia and that may explain why Thai authorities gave the cold shoulder to Asean's latest move to broker peace talks. (Indonesia currently chairs Asean.)

What makes this book suitable for general readers is that at its core it is about the lives of the soldiers. While offering a wealth of data, the writer always draws readers back to those brave soldiers who earn a meagre salary to protect our country. Wassana makes it clear that she is for a professional military. She has donated income from her books to assist the families of soldiers who died in the line of duty in the three southernmost provinces and in the Preah Vihear clashes. Names of fallen soldiers are mentioned. The writer also interviewed heartbroken family members. She observes that most of the soldiers killed in the line of duty were recently married, or had newborn babies or pregnant wives.

Despite its serious subject matter, the book is peppered with humour, much of it dark when its troubling implications are considered. Such is the case with Wassana's detailing of how the army is spending 14 million baht to produce amulets to hand out to soldiers fighting in the South and near Preah Vihear. (High-ranking soldiers clearly want to allay fears of Cambodia's alleged use of voodooism to cause bad luck to Thais!)

CHILD’S EYE VIEW: A drawing from a child living on the Thai side of the border depicts the ongoing dispute over Preah Vihear temple.

Then there is how local villagers collect remnants of rockets as memorabilia or even as good luck charms; a rocket fired by Cambodian troops is kept as a bell at a Thai temple.

The funniest chapter is about the black magic that Thai soldiers believed Boonranee, wife of prime minister Hun Sen, used to curse Thai soldiers (two of whom died mysteriously).

The book brings us closer to those soldiers. We now know our tough and highly superstitious Second Army commander has to eat ice cream to de-stress when planning a military attack.

Regardless of her leanings towards retaliation, Wassana is right on one point: Thai authorities let politics determine military operations at the cost of soldiers' lives. Hun Sen also cleverly and successfully uses both diplomatic tactics and brute military force, not to mention manipulation of the media to invoke hatred and spread propaganda.

The Preah Vihear conflict is a strange one. As villagers are evacuated, trade along the border continues, with only brief pauses. Gamblers still frequent casinos across the border run by politicians. It is a conflict in which Prime Minister Abhisit ordered soldiers to exercise maximum restraint and behave like "gentlemen".

Wassana said she wants this book to draw more attention to the issue of Preah Vihear. "Do not look at the land as forest, hills, brick and rocks. All of these things are part of our motherland and we cannot afford to lose even a square inch. We must not let this land be consumed by cheating tactics and ignorance or gross incompetence of the government, the army or of Thais who fail to inspect and pressure the government and army to do their duty."

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