There's a lot of talk about mortality in the Hindu temple at Preah Vihear right now. "I won't leave the temple," vows Hang Soth, the Cambodian government official responsible for maintaining the World Heritage site. He has been holed up in his office for more than a month. "This is a life-and-death place for me. If I die here, I die with honor." The reason for Hang Soth's dark mood is evident everywhere you look around the 11th century temple complex. A Cambodian-army heavy machine gun stands near the entrance; three times in the past week, it has been prepared for firing and then stood down. All around the complex, an estimated 3,000 Cambodian and Thai troops face one another in a hair-trigger standoff that began on June 15, when Thai troops entered a contested border area. Cambodia claims the crucial piece land that provides access to the temple site; Thailand disagrees. And diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation have yet to bear fruit.
The Thai military acted after Cambodia succeeded in getting Preah Vihear listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site despite Thailand's insistence that the Khmer temple be jointly managed by both countries. Over the years, the area around Preah Vihear has come under the sway of both nations as well as of Cambodia's former colonial overlord, France. But in 1962, in a decision that still rankles the Thais, the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belongs to Cambodia. Still, that judgment did not quite settle the issue of who owns the 1.8 sq. mi. of land surrounding the site. Thai troops have bunkered down inside the Cambodian pagoda and the surrounding jungle. Although Thailand does not officially dispute Cambodia's ownership of the temple itself, its troops are now in a stand-off with Cambodia's there and in the surrounding jungle, through which the access road to the temple is located.
Talks on July 21 between Cambodia's Minister of Defense, Tea Banh, and Thailand's Supreme Commander General, Boonsrang Niumpradit, failed to resolve the standoff. That was no surprise to the Cambodian officials gathered at Preah Vihear to organize what they characterize as a to-the-death defense of Cambodia's most sacred national symbol after Angkor Wat. (Cambodian nationalism has been inflamed by political rhetoric ahead of this month's general election.)
More than 200 Cambodian women and children are camped under sheets of plastic at a wooden pavilion inside the temple complex, having been forced to move from the ramshackle market area at the locked entrance gates to the temple from the Thai side. Coils of razor wire now bar those gates, through which hundreds of visitors usually pass daily to climb to the top of Preah Vihear and take in its stunning mountaintop view over the plains of northern Cambodia. "I am very afraid," says 8-year-old Ol Srey Mao as she hides behind her grandmother's sarong. At least she has an escape route planned. "If the Thai troops come, I will run up there," she says, pointing to the temple's ornately sculpted stone entrance.
In the air-conditioned halls of power in Bangkok, few are expecting war at Preah Vihear. On the Thai side, the dispute has been turned into an issue by an opposition alliance that is berating the government for initially failing to challenge Cambodia's bid for World Heritage status for the site. Hundreds of Thais have gathered on the border to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and to vow to protect the land that they believe belongs to Thailand. But cooler heads may prevail. Thailand has written to the United Nations emphasizing that the "prime ministers of Thailand and Cambodia have already pledged utmost restraint and expressed their conviction in resolving the issue."
But such reassuring words mean little to the terrified Cambodians at Preah Vihear. "If bombs are dropped in the temple, there is nothing we can do," says Van Kim Yan, a 57-year-old grandmother. The Cambodian government says its troops are under orders to fire only if fired upon. At first glance, its soldiers don't look too impressive, though. Most are wearing flip-flops and mismatched uniforms and each is armed with little more than a rusty AK-47 rifle or a rocket launcher whose shoulder strap is an old rope. Over the past week, they have ridden on motorbikes or walked up the steep 3-mi. mountain road to the temple. Don't be fooled, says Captain Thor Bun Hong: some of these men are actually fearsome former Khmer Rouge guerrillas who once controlled this entire area. "The real soldiers wear flip-flops," he boasts. "The men with boots can run away. The men with flip-flops stand and fight."