Bordertown Goes Underground

Jun 11, 2011
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Nearly 60,000 flee as soldiers along the Thai-Cambodian border dig in and build bunkers amidst fierce fighting.

938 Security forces dig a bunker in Nong Kun Na. Photo: IRINIn the Thai village of Nong Kun Na along the disputed border with Cambodia, security forces are digging in, building bunkers and training volunteers to act as defence guards.

The development comes as Red Cross officials report close to 60,000 now displaced.

Of the 1,200 residents of Nong Kun Na, just 80 remain, with the rest evacuated to temporary shelters, mainly temples and schools.

Three districts of Surin Province – Phanom Dong Rak, Kab Choeng and Prasat – have been declared disaster zones.

"I don't know when the residents will return here," said Su Thai Pim, chief of Nong Kun Na, who has chosen to stay. "Right now we are just waiting for the situation to improve, but there is fighting every day."

The latest escalation of fighting now focuses on a disputed hill near the ancient temples of Ta Krabey and Ta Moan.

Tensions between the two countries first escalated in July 2008 following the build-up of troops near the Preah Vihear temple, which dates back to the 11th century and is located on the Cambodian side of the 800km border.

That same month, the Hindu temple was added to the UN World Heritage List. Close to three years later, with no resolution in sight, the conflict is fast becoming one of Southeast Asia's deadliest border disputes in years, observers say.

And though both countries lay claim to area, many analysts believe the conflict is actually being driven by the domestic politics, particularly in Thailand where the military has been raising its profile in recent months as the country prepares for general elections, likely to be held in June or July.

939 Paralysed from the waist down, Sawai Sa-Marn Duang had to remain behind. Photo: IRIN

Tensions could abate after the elections, as Thai politicians will no longer be campaigning through the use of anti-Cambodian rhetoric, said Paul Chambers, a Thai military affairs specialist at Heidelberg University, Germany.

But until then, as both countries dig in, fortify their positions along the border and appeal to nationalist sentiment - something the conflict has spurred in both countries - clashes will likely continue to bring bloodshed and hardship to both sides.

According to Thai and Cambodian Red Cross officials, as of 27 April, more than 58,000 people have now been displaced, including 31,500 in Thailand and 26,572 in Cambodia.

"The fighting has increased the number of displaced since last night," Sam Ath Uy, the director of disaster risk management for the Cambodian Red Cross, confirmed.

Most of the 80 residents remaining are now armed with shotguns.

According to Su Thai Pim, the villagers have not seen a single NGO or relief agency since the latest round of fighting began on April 22, although they have received supplies such as food and water from the government.

But supplies are not sufficient for Nong Kun Na's remaining inhabitants, many of whom feel they have been forgotten.

"We need more, especially instant noodles and water," Su Thai Pim said.

This article was first published in IRIN.