Tuesday, November 24, 2009

POLITICS: Thai-Cambodia Tension Gives Rise to Schools with Bunkers

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BAAN POM-SA-RON, Thailand, Nov 24 (IPS) - Children at the largest school in this village close to the Thai-Cambodian border have a new regimen to follow besides books and sports. They have drills, practising evacuation, in case their school comes under an artillery attack.

The destination of such flight is visible across Pom-Sa-Ron Widhaya. Spread around the corners of the school’s playing field and behind the only building where 600 students study are 14 bunkers. Each is built with cement, fortified with sandbags and earth and can hold 30 students comfortably.

The bunkers at the school are among the clearest signs of unease that has swept across this area as relations between Thailand and its eastern neighbour Cambodia worsen. Thai authorities have built 340 bunkers in two schools and several villages in three sub-districts in Sri Saket, the province where Baan Pom-Sa-Ron sits. The bunkers, which have been built over the past three months, cost 40 million baht (1.2 million U.S. dollars)

"They were just finished last week," says Warunrat Chitruchiphong, the school’s English teacher, of the bunkers. "It is a way to protect the students in case there is a conflict."

"Evacuation drills have begun. We want to train the students how to take shelter," she adds. "We have had few practises, first by getting the students to leave classes and assemble outside."

This shift in the rhythm of a school day has begun to shape conversation in the classrooms. "Students talk about what they have to do if there is an attack," says Supawadee Chaladyam, a 17-year-old who dreams of a career in nursing. "I have gone to the bunkers with my classmates when we have free time."

Parents welcome the protective net spread across this area by the government. "This area has seen tension before because of border problems. People had to move out of their villages," says Wichet Buakew, who has a son and a daughter at the school. "It is good that the government has built these bunkers for the children."

Bangkok’s reaction stems from the proximity of this village to a 10th century Hindu temple that has fired nationalistic passions in both Thailand and Cambodia. The Preah Vihear temple, which sits on the edge of a steep cliff, is 10 kilometres away from the school.

Anger and fits of patriotic chest-thumping among Thais have followed a decision in July last year by the World Heritage Committee to recognise Preah Vihear as a world heritage site. The committee also recognised a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that the temple was within Cambodian territory.

The tension saw a spike in troop strength along this border area where the Thai and Cambodian military have faced each other down before. In April this year soldiers from both countries exchanged gunfire, leaving three people dead.

A planned sports event over the weekend between the two forces guarding the border aimed to calm tensions was postponed. "The postponement was initiated by Cambodian authorities, without stating any reasons," reported ‘The Nation’, an English language daily in Thailand, quoting Prawat Ratthairom, a deputy provincial governor of Si Sa Ket.

Relations between the two South-east Asian kingdoms have plummeted further following the Cambodian government’s ties with former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a nemesis of the current Thai administration under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Thaksin, whose popularly elected government was ousted in a 2006 coup and who lives in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for a conflict-of-interest case, was recently appointed as an economic adviser to Phnom Penh.

Thailand’s decision to increase vigilance along the border it shares with Cambodia has come at a price to local communities on the Cambodian side. Sri Saket’s central jail currently holds 40 Cambodians, who were arrested by soldiers in the forests surrounding the Preah Vihear temple.

"They came across the border and violated the forest law," said Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga to a group of foreign journalists who had accompanied him to this border region. "We have to keep them here."

The arrested Cambodians were alleged to have been foraging through the forests for bamboo and mushrooms and "cutting trees." Such search for food is common among both Thais and Cambodians living along the border.

Some Thais, such as Prayut Wongkamjan, have suffered worse while looking for food in the forests close to the temple. The 37-year-old stepped on a landmine, one of the many buried along the border during the decades that Cambodia was torn apart by conflict.

For now, war between the two countries is not what Thailand wants. "At this moment, there is a lot of news that might frighten the people," says Pirapan. "But we want to assure the people of their security. We don’t need any fighting."

It is a view echoed by the people and local officials in Sri Saket who have built strong ties with Cambodian communities across the border. "The locals here and those in Cambodia are like sisters and brothers," says Nirandon Lumthaisong, secretary to the local village council. "They speak the same language and have similar culture."

But such ties cannot be sustained following the Thai government’s decision to close some of the nearby border crossings, Niranond complains. "That will make no good for anyone. Nowadays the government has already stopped us from visiting each other."


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