Cambodian magic at Preah Vihear

by AFP, Nov 18, 2008 | Destinations: Cambodia / Thailand

PREAH VIHEAR, November 10, 2008 - A couple of weeks after their deadly border shootout, a Cambodian infantryman admits Thai troops have better weapons, but he's confident his pink "magic scarf" will ward off bullets.

"Thai soldiers have modern weapons, but I am not scared," says Chum Khla. "I have magic charms to protect myself."

As well as the scarf which he ties around his head, the 28-year-old soldier wears a protective talisman belt and carries two small Buddhist figurines.

"I have had countless gunfights in the past with former Khmer Rouge fighters, but I have never been in any danger," he says, owing his safety to the amulets.

Outgunned in their border standoff which began in July, Chum Khla and his comrades carry on traditions of using mystical Buddhist objects and tattooing spells on their bodies to protect themselves.

The contrast between the Thai and Cambodian sides facing off in disputed territory near the ancient Preah Vihear temple is startling.

The Thai military is backed by state-of-the-art jets and heavy weapons, while many Cambodians wear flip-flops as they carry Cold War-era arms.

Days after October 15 clashes on disputed land left three Cambodians and one Thai dead, many Thai soldiers were fitted with body armour.

Cambodian commanders, meanwhile, gave their troops colourful scarves with mystical symbols said to have been imbued with protective powers by a Buddhist monk.

Charms, talismans and superstitions are universal among soldiers around the world. But the tattooed Cambodians, battle-hardened by decades of civil war which ended in 1998, put more stock than most in magic symbols.

Cambodian and Thai leaders have agreed to prevent further clashes, but the troops at the border are not taking any chances -- they continue to deck themselves out in all the charms they can get their hands on.

"I believe 100 percent that these magic things can help spare my life in battle," says Cambodian soldier Koy San as Thai troops camp on a slope above him.

"I have both a magic scarf and a string of talismans around my hip. I wear them all the time," says the 35-year-old.

Tensions between Cambodia and Thailand began in July when Preah Vihear was awarded UN cultural heritage status, angering nationalists in Thailand who still claim ownership of the ruined monument.

A World Court ruling in 1962 declared the temple belonged to Cambodia, but much of the surrounding area remains in dispute.

The Cambodians admit magic items are not the only source of their protection -- military strategy and speed also help.

"We have magic things, but we have to be fast and our hands must be quick to grab our weapons and jump into the trenches. Then our lives are saved," says a grizzled 38-year-old soldier who declined to give his name.

The Cambodian government is seemingly not counting on magic to defend its territory. In the midst of the border dispute, the impoverished country decided to double its military budget to 500 million dollars next year.

But the 38-year-old soldier says he is even more of a believer in magic after the October fighting, during which his commander was killed.

"He also had a talisman, but he took it off as he took a nap. And he did not have a chance to put it back on when the shootout suddenly happened... so his life was ended," says the soldier.

Khan Yorn, abbot of a pagoda in the disputed area, says he has made countless protective belts for soldiers stationed there.

"A lot of soldiers have asked me for belts which are inscribed with Buddhist dharma so that they can have happiness, but I cannot say the amulets can prevent bullets," Khan Yorn says.

But he quickly notes something miraculous might have happened during last month's firefight.

"When the gunfire broke out, I was staying in the monk house, and the bullets were spraying around the pagoda like we spread rice husks," he says. "But they did not hit my monk house."

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