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Religious setback

By Bronwyn Sloan, DPA, July 21, 2008

"I feel very sad about weapons at a pagoda. I am a Buddhist, too," Thai Colonel Chay An Huay Sooner said. "But I am a soldier, so I follow orders, although I don't know who gave them."

Preah Vihear, Cambodia/Thailand -- Preah Vihear local Sor Sarom went to the pagoda on the first day of Buddhist Lent as she always does, and found herself being held at gunpoint by a man dressed in black.

"It brought all my memories of the Khmer Rouge back. I was terrified. He just came out of the shadows inside the temple," the 50-year-old said.

Slowly she realized the armed man pointing an assault rifle at her inside Wat Keo Setha Kiri Svarak, around 600 metres from the main Preah Vihear temple on the Thai border, was a Thai soldier.

Buddhist Lent, when Buddhist monks sequester themselves for the monsoon season, is traditionally a period of meditation, teaching and introspection for monks on both sides of the border.

This year Lent began Friday, but for three days Thai troops had already been camped in an area they say is a disputed no man's land, after tensions, building since Unesco listed the temple as a World Heritage site earlier this month, boiled over.

Although the 11th century Preah Vihear temple was ruled Cambodian by the International Court ruled in 1962, surrounding land remains contested, and Thailand had objected to the temple's listing on those grounds.

Chief monk at Wat Keo Setha, Khan Yon, says the dispute and resulting military buildup has been emotionally wrenching on devout Buddhist citizens and soldiers on both sides.

"One Thai commander came to me and offered money to the pagoda to show his feelings," Khan Yon said. "Thai Buddhists are like Cambodian Buddhists, but now Thai soldiers come here wearing all black like the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot."

Some had even slung hammocks in the pagoda before they were ordered to pull back a few metres from the religious site late Saturday after a visit by an international delegation, he said.

"Those people are not real Buddhists. Please take off your black caps and do not carry weapons inside. This is a place of prayer."

Cambodians still remember when black-clad Khmer Rouge troops abolished religion and slaughtered monks in a disastrous 1975-79 reign, and although they know that is not the Thai soldiers' intent, the sight of armed men in black at a pagoda is cruelly evocative.

"I feel very sad about weapons at a pagoda. I am a Buddhist, too," Thai Colonel Chay An Huay Sooner said. "But I am a soldier, so I follow orders, although I don't know who gave them."

Although more than 1,000 troops from both sides are now dug in the disputed territory around a temple sacred to both sides, there are hopes that talks over the border in Thailand Monday might be the beginnings of a solution and the focus can return to religion.

"Thai monks used to come here all the time, and we welcome them because we believe in the same things," said Khan Yon. "I hope that can happen again."


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