(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Communities hoard food as border dispute continues

A Cambodian soldier stands guard along the Thai-Cambodian border. Tension over ownership of an ancient Hindu temple in the area has left many area residents hoarding food items, heightening the risk of possible food shortages should the crisis escalate.
Geoffrey Cain/IRIN

Communities along the Thai-Cambodian border are hoarding food and basic necessities as an ongoing border dispute between the two countries continues.

Both sides have deployed thousands of troops to the area, escalating border tensions and prompting concerns among residents over possible food shortages.

The diplomatic impasse concerns the Preah Vihear temple inside Cambodia, which has been claimed by both countries, but remains accessible largely only from the Thai side.

A 1962 decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague awarded the former Hindu, now Buddhist, 900-year-old temple to Cambodia. But according to Thailand, the 4.6 sqkm area of scrubland around the temple - which gives its name to Cambodia's Preah Vihear Province - was never specifically covered by the ruling.

Nationalist sentiments on both sides of the border were galvanised on 7 July following a decision by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to place the temple on its list of protected monuments or World Heritage sites, inciting Thailand's political opposition and prompting both countries to deploy troops to the area.

Fleeing to safety

Cambodian vendors around the temple, perched on a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, have begun retreating to lower ground. "I fear for my safety and for the safety of my family," Phim Sreyneath, who runs a beverage stand outside the temple, told IRIN. "The best solution is to simply go down the mountain and buy a lot of canned food before the situation gets worse."

Yet so far, families are not being separated. Villagers on the Thai side of the border are largely staying put, digging trenches in preparation for possible hostilities.


Photo: Geoffrey Cain/IRIN
Tension over ownership of the Preah Vihear temple along the border has left many local residents to hoard basic food items

The Thai military has been conducting evacuation and combat drills for civilians, according to media reports, and renovating old bunkers used against the spillover from Cambodia's 1980s civil war.

Yet Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, urged international observers to carefully discern between residents who were actually fleeing and those who simply trekked up and down the mountain on a daily basis.

"Most vendors around the temple go down the mountain every day to restock their businesses," he said. "The situation may not be as bad as it seems."

But some residents disagree.

"There's no point in sitting around the temple," said Nguon Sopheap, who drives motorbikes for tourists. "If we stay up here, I don't know what soldiers could do to us. The only reason I'd stay is if there's good business around Preah Vihear, which there is not," he said.

Since the latest crisis erupted, Nguon, like others, has been transporting canned food on the back of his motorbike to his house.

Food aid

To avoid possible shortages, the Cambodian Royal Palace has donated food to Cambodian residents and soldiers along the border while the Khmer Civilization Foundation and the Preah Vihear Fund have dispatched anti-malarial medicine, tents, hammocks and raincoats to soldiers.

The aid is enough for now, but should the stand-off spiral into a food shortage, aid agencies may face serious problems transporting goods to the top of Cambodia's largely inaccessible cliffs.

The Thai side, however, remains easily accessible, with paved roads.

Looming conflict between Cambodia and Thailand could boost food prices around the border as villagers hoard resources, warn observers. Food prices in Cambodia have nearly doubled in the past year, with 1kg of rice costing US$0.80 in July 2008 compared with $0.45 one year earlier, according to the Economic Institute of Cambodia.

gc/ds/mw

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