WEDNESDAY, 29 JULY 2009 15:03 THET SAMBATH AND TRACEY SHELTON
An RCAF battalion stationed along the front lines near Preah Vihear temple has taken to growing food to supplement what soldiers say are meagre rations.
Preah Vihear Province
OVER the past year, soldiers in one Royal Cambodian Armed Forces battalion stationed along the Thai-Cambodian border in Preah Vihear province have learned how to supplement what they describe as meagre rations provided by the government - by growing their own food.
Though they say the tension with Thailand is never far from their minds, troops belonging to RCAF Battalion 404 find time each day to tend livestock and cultivate vegetables on their base, located about 2 kilometers away from the disputed Preah Vihear temple complex.
They have raised two pigs, 49 cows, and more than 1,000 chickens at their base in Ta Thav, in Preah Vihear's Choam Ksan district. In addition, they have also grown a variety of different vegetables, including cucumbers, pumpkins, potatoes, cabbage and corn.
"We have rations from the government, but it's not enough," said Ten Navun, a first lieutenant in the battalion. "That's why we decided to make our base self-sufficient."
There are slightly fewer than 1,000 soldiers in Battalion 404, currently stationed about 100 metres from the border with Thailand. All members of the battalion are former Khmer Rouge soldiers, Ten Navun said.
Colonel Sem Yo, the commander of the battalion, said the soldiers' time with the Khmer Rouge, during which they were often isolated in the forest and forced to fend for themselves, had prepared them well for their current conditions.
"You know we are former Khmer Rouge soldiers, so we have been taught how to farm, how to plant vegetables, how to grow rice. This is what we have learned, and now we continue to practice it. We have our own crops, so we don't worry about running out of food," he said.
Though many of the soldiers have been stationed in the area for years, Ten Navun said they became particularly interested in establishing a farm there in just the past 12 months, as the conflict with Thailand over UNESCO's decision to accept Cambodia's application to list Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage site became increasingly hostile and, at times, violent.
He said the soldiers were worried that Thai soldiers would attempt to disrupt their supply lines and cut off their rations completely.
"We are planning to raise more chickens, cows, pigs and crops to have enough supplies for everyone here. This is our strategy to defend the border," he said.
He estimated that the battalion could survive for two to three months on its current food supply.
Building a permanent base
Sem Yo said he believed the base in Ta Thav could become the main RCAF base in the area, adding that he had ordered the troops to expand the camp by constructing houses and meeting halls.
Already, the camp is starting to look more settled. On a recent Monday morning, soldiers were at work planting vegetables and building houses.
Others played volleyball or card games to pass the time.
The sole woman with the all-male battalion, Than Ry, the 27-year-old wife of one of the soldiers, said she was doing her best to provide a civilising influence over the soldiers.
"They always make fun of me because I'm the only woman here, but I am happy to stay here and chat with them every day, even though there is tension at the border," said Than Ry, adding that she had been tasked with cooking for the soldiers and helping with the vegetable garden as well.
"I am not afraid of fighting by Thai and Cambodian soldiers," she said. "If there is a clash, I will hide in a trench with my husband."
One challenge that remains for the soldiers is to maintain a constant supply of fresh water. They have constructed a well near the base after receiving funding from RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Hing Bun Heang, who is also the bodyguard commander for Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But because their camp is on a hilltop, the water has proved difficult to pump.
Currently, soldiers fetch water from wells at the bottom of the hill and transport it on trucks or motorbikes for 1 kilometer along the road into their camp.
Up until last month, before the road was finished, the soldiers were forced to walk up the hill while carrying their water and rice.
Officials in Phnom Penh praised the soldiers' resourcefulness, but they rejected the notion that the government was not providing them with enough food.
"The ministry has provided them with enough rations and food, but our soldiers have farmed and planted vegetables because they want to eat delicious food," said Chum Sambath, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Defence.
"They have been trained to support themselves," he added, calling the battalion's practices part of a "military strategy".
Sok Vandeth, deputy commander of Border Police Battalion 795, who is also stationed at Ta Thav, said his battalion also tends a vegetable garden. He said it would be "impossible" to rely solely on government rations.
"We have nothing to do here but plant things for our food," he said.