Cambodia's war threatens Angkor Wat

An ancient symbol of peace is being shaken by the barrages fired by Hun Sen's forces

Matthew Chance Siem Reap
Sunday 13 July 1997 23:02 BST

The ancient ruined temples of Angkor Wat looked majestic but deserted yesterday above the thick jungles of north-west Cambodia, as gunfire and the sporadic thuds of exploding artillery rounds shattered their austere calm and threatened the safety of the monuments.

With bursts of rocket barrages, rival government factions and Khmer Rouge guerrillas are locked in a standoff, driving out the paying visitors that are the lifeblood of Siem Reap.

A solitary line of saffron-clad Buddhist monks padded its way through the gates of the main temple, silent and with heads bowed as they paid homage at a shrine to the Hindu god Vishnu. His formidable stone figure, cut in sandstone by 13th-century masons, looked out on a lush but troubled land.

In Sar Sar Sdan, a few miles west of Angkor's architectural treasures, troops loyal to Hun Sen, Cambodia's power-grabbing leader, sat poring over a torn map of the region.

Bare-chested, and inhaling deep lungfuls of cigarette smoke, one soldier gave the order to fire with a nonchalant wave of his hand: a deadly barrage of screeching Katushka rockets sent sonic shock waves through the air before thundering explosions confirm hits in the rice paddies and jungles beyond the horizon.

Since Hun Sen staged his bloody takeover in the capital, Phnom Penh, last week, more than 150 people have been killed, marking a tragic return to the old alliances that dragged Cambodia through a decade of brutal conflict in the 1980s.

Hun Sen yesterday called on all sides to unite and hold free and fair elections to avoid war. But as he spoke, his Chinese-made tanks and Russian rocket launchers were again turned on the forces of Funcinpec, the royalist political party led by the ousted co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

As in the 1980s, the royalists have formed an alliance with the hated Khmer Rouge, which, perhaps, is their only military option.

But the partnership is heavily out-gunned. Defected Khmer Rouge leaders, who control about 10,000 well-trained men, have stayed neutral in the conflict - for the moment. What remains of the brutal, hardline, Khmer Rouge is no match for the might of Hun Sen's numerous tanks, helicopter gunships and heavy guns.

In a move to crush his opponents, Hun Sen has deployed a 2,000-strong force in Siem Reap to hunt down units resisting his rule. By last night they had pushed the combined forces of Funcinpec and the Khmer Rouge deep into the remote jungles around Angkor Wat.

"Funcinpec have stopped fighting now, they are just running from us. It is only the Khmer Rouge who are putting up any kind of fight," one soldier said.

Hun Sen's army commanders are concerned about the security of Angkor and the lucrative tourist trade. The impact is already being felt by the local residents, who depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Its airport, the main gateway for the thousands of visitors who come to Siem Reap every year to marvel at the splendours of its royal Khmer past, today stands empty of foreigners. They have been evacuated following last week's fierce fighting. All but a few hotels and restaurants have closed. Even the touts who sell foreigners $20 (pounds 15) Angkor Wat site passes have abandoned their stamping grounds.

"I am desperate," said Thea Rim, a tour guide and driver who supports his family by showing tourists the archaeological sites. "Now I'm just ferrying soldiers to the frontline in my car. That hardly pays petrol money."

Four years of relative peace have shown these people that prosperity is attainable. But a climate of uncertainty has gripped Siem Reap as the prospect of renewed war grows. There is a real fear in the ancient town that the brutal Khmer Rouge may be upon them again. "Are they coming back?" shouted one boy who was certainly too young to remember their rule in 1975. His panicked expression revealing less about his own anxieties than the terror of his elders.

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