10th CENTURY MYSTIQUE
Khieu Rong, aged 44, has never seen Cambodia's best-known monument, Angkor Wat. But
he knows another of the country's most prized temples - this one remote and largely
unseen - like the back of his hand.
He lives at the secluded Prasat Preah Vihear, the 10th century mountaintop temple
which sits on the Khmer side of the Cambodian-Thai border, offering panoramic views
for miles over both countries.
To outsiders, it is one of Cam-bodia's most spectacular but forbidden temples, with
a history steeped in controversy and mystique. To Khieu Rong, it's not a bad place
to be a guerrilla fighter.
"Of all the places that the Khmer Rouge sent me to fight against the government,
only here have I been very happy," said Rong, a battalion commander with more
than 20 years experience in KR ranks.
"I was happy when Pol Pot sent me to the temple," added Rong, who joined
the small KR garrison here a year ago. "I thought it was very beautiful and
a very good place to live. It's better than Anlong Veng, because of the Khmer temple
and because there's very little fighting on the mountain."
Since 1993, Preah Vihear temple has been the jewel in the Khmer Rouge crown. Like
the besieged Funcinpec resistance base of O'Smach to the west, it is of little strategic
military value - except as a sanctuary for retreating forces - but has far greater
The temple personifies Cam-bodia's attempts to maintain its sovereignty and land
- Thailand seized the area in 1958, returning it four years later when the then-Prince
Noro-dom Sihanouk won a World Court case over the dispute.
In recent years, Phnom Penh has been deprived of the temple - a cultural treasure
and potentially-lucrative tourism spot - by the KR, whose radio broadcasts have often
trumpeted their control of the site.
They have had little difficulty in repelling occasional government attacks - up a
steep cliff littered with mines, booby traps and exposed to fire from the KR's two
But now Khieu Rong and his comrades at Prasat Preah Vihear don't want to fight any
more. Rejecting a reported bid by Ta Mok to flee to the temple, they joined the KR
breakaway movement last week.
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) generals, armed with beer and skewered fish,
flew in by helicopter March 30 for their first meeting with the temple defectors.
Most of the guerrillas warmly welcomed RCAF and a group of journalists present, proudly
showing off the temple, the sweeping hilltop views and their artillery pieces. The
next day, they had a captive audience when a second load of reporters had to stay
the night there after their helicopter crash-landed.
"When we were under Pol Pot and Ta Mok's control, we did not allow tourists
to come here," Major An Sambath, another battalion commander, said March 30.
"But from now on, it will be open for tourists to come here. I want a lot of
people to come and see the temple."
RCAF and KR make friends
Situated in the far north of Preah Vihear province, one of Cambodia's remotest provinces
accessible by land only by the heavily-mined Route 12 from Kampong Thom, the temple
sits atop a 2,000-foot mountain. As RCAF troops know well, it's one of the hardest
places to get to by land in Cambodia, but only a short hop across from Thailand.
A Thai sealed road leads straight to the border, where it ends abruptly; from there,
it's just a few hundreds meters across an open field to the temple.
"A successful attack from the Cambodian side is not possible," said Khieu
Rong, wearing a new RCAF cap and his old KR fatigues. "The mountain is very
steep and there are many mines. They tried very hard to capture here many times -
they never did," he said of the government, to the grins and nods of his fellow
And for him and his comrades? "It's no problem for me to get up the mountain.
I know where to climb," he said, adding that there are two passes up the mountain,
one with a dirt road accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle - in the dry season at
least. The road can be seen continuing in the distance toward Anlong Veng, about
65km away as the crow flies; it takes a week to walk there, says Rong.
Defectors said that the usual strength of the KR brigade at the temple was 60 soldiers
(although RCAF claimed 272 defections there), more than enough to hold off attacks
from government forces based 30km to the southwest. "[The only real danger]
was when we went down the mountain; sometimes they could attack us. If we stay here,
we stay alive," said Rong.
The temple - four sets of ruins on different levels up the sloping mountain plateau
- has suffered some war damage over the years.
"I'm very, very sorry about the damage caused by fighting," said An Sambath,
aged 30. "I am a young Khmer, and I know that we cannot build temples like this
any more. We have just tried to defend it."
Kong Sithea, a 21-year-old defector with a friendly grin on his face and three small,
black Chinese grenades strapped to his waist, recounted how Ta Mok visited the temple
during the last rainy season.
"Ta Mok stayed here one or two nights to check on our forces. He said all the
people must defend this temple. He said this is a very good temple, that is a Khmer
temple built a long time ago. He said that the Khmer people cannot build temples
like this anymore. Ta Mok told all of us here that we have to protect the temple
and not allow the yuon [Vietnamese] to capture it."
Sithea added that Mok had contacted the temple forces within a few days of the Anlong
Veng revolt, saying that he might retreat to the mountain. He was told that he wasn't
welcome. "If we allow him to come here, it means that Khmers will continue to
kill Khmers," said Sithea.
One of the youngest guerrillas at the temple, Sithea explained why he had joined
the KR at age 14 in 1990, and why he now rejected Mok.
"I joined the Khmer Rouge to fight the yuon. At that time, the yuon had come
to take over Cambodia. They destroyed all the fish in the Tonle Sap. They tried to
take all the land. They killed Cambodians.
"But now, I think the yuon are not fighting any more. It is just Khmer and Khmer
fighting. If the fighting is Khmer against Khmer, I don't want to fight anymore,"
Sithea said, adding that the one person he would fight is Mok.
"I am not worried about fighting Ta Mok if he comes here. If Ta Mok wanted to
capture this place with 500 men, and we had only 50 men, he could not capture it."
BACK IN GOVERNMENT HANDS
Life goes on for the newest Khmer Rouge defectors within the beautiful Preah Vihear temple. The flag changes though.
The easiest way to seize the temple is via Thailand. Prasat Preah Vihear has long
stood as one of the prime examples of the collusion between Thai authorities and
When the KR seized the ruins in July 1993, after they boycotted the UN-sponsored
elections, they did so by crossing through Thai territory to attack a small RCAF
brigade stationed there, according to Cambodian government and independent sources
at the time.
Since then, there have been repeated questions about how the guerrillas get their
food, fuel and other supplies, given the treacherous hillside on the Cambodian side.
Defectors insisted that their ammunition and other supplies came up from Cambodia.
The supplies were few and far between, they complained. "It was very difficult:
no MSG, no tobacco. For a few months at a time, we had only two or three cans of
fish each," said An Sambath. Asked if they bought food from Thai villagers,
he replied that they could if they had the money. "I've been in the Khmer Rouge
for thirteen years and never got paid a salary once," he remarked.
Before flying into the temple, RCAF chiefs obtained clearance from Thailand - remembering
how they had been shot at by Thai anti-aircraft guns on previous, war-time sorties
in the area - and Thai officers including a general were present at the temple when
Controversy, often involving Thailand, has dogged the temple. First there was the
long-standing territorial dispute over its ownership. Then, after the ouster of the
Pol Pot regime by the Vietnamese in 1979, Thai soldiers trucked more than 40,000
Cambodian refugees from border camps in the west and forced them down the Preah Vihear
cliffs; thousands were reportedly killed or maimed from stepping on mines, falling
down the slopes, or being shot as they tried to return to Thailand.
More recently, it was at the temple that Funcinpec officials met KR negotiators last
June, just before Ta Mok toppled Pol Pot. A month later, it was here that Funcinpec
leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh had been due to sign a political alliance with KR
nominal leader Khieu Samphan, approved by Mok, just as fighting broke out in Phnom
An Sambath claimed that soon after Pol Pot's overthrow, "Thai authorities offered
Ta Mok hundreds of thousands of baht to allow tourists to come here", but he
During the UN peacekeeping mission, tourists came to the temple from the Thai side.
Khieu Rong noted that, since 1993, there have been "no foreigners, no tourists",
but "only Thai military".
What will happen to Prasat Preah Vihear now is unclear but, for the time being, the
defectors will decide. "They just defect to the government, but it is still
under their control," one RCAF official said.
"Ta Mok is a very bad man," said Im Hoeun, the KR Div 612 commander who
said he was in charge of Preah Vihear province and all of the area east of Anlong
Veng. "He wanted to pull me out of my post because I asked him to build schools,
hospitals and roads. Ta Mok did not agree," Hoeun said, explaining one of his
motivations for breaking away.
"From now on, I will ask the government to do these things, especially to build
a good road up to the temple," he said, adding: "For Khmers, this is a
very historic place, it is a very good place."