“. . . a world that was too selfish.”

Preah Vihear: A Remembrance

by Saw Takkaw

On June 8, 1979, the Royal Thai Army commenced an operation in which 45,000 Cambodian refugees were forcibly repatriated into war-torn Cambodia. The refugees were transported by the Thai Army to the Thai – Cambodian border and forced to walk down a steep mountain slope laden with land mines near the ancient Buddhist temple of Preah Vihear.

One survivor later recounted:

“It was impossible to number the victims from the land mines. The wounded people were moaning. The most difficult part of the walk was near the dead bodies. Tears I thought had dried up long ago came back to my eyes – less because of the sight than from the thought that those innocent people had paid with their lives for their attempts to reach freedom in a world that was too selfish.” (Shawcross, William. The Quality of Mercy, p. 90)

Mindless to the carnage unfolding before them, which resulted in thousands of deaths, the Thai Army forced truckload after truckload of refugees down the steep slopes at Preah Vihear (evidence also suggests that Thai soldiers shot refugees who attempted to turn back).

Outraged, the Swedish ambassador to Thailand sent the following message to his government:

“What should have been long predicted is now a fact – forced repatriation. No protests or insubstantial threats will change the Royal Thai Government’s mood. The decision has been taken in the conviction that the international community has shown a notorious lack of interest in this question . . . ” (Ibid.)

What occurred at Preah Vihear bears heavily on our collective human conscience. This tragedy points to the callousness of the world’s governments, indifference in our communities, and the failures of our international organizations. Despite “our” failings at Preah Vihear, we should recognize and utilize our inherent individual human potential to build, help, and show mercy. By opening our eyes to these capacities, we then realize the value of each human entity as well as our own intrinsic worth and potential – then we all matter – and what we say, do, and strive for matters as well. But when we turn our heads away from those around us who are suffering, then ultimately, we die. But when we bond with others in need, share, and struggle for justice, then we live.

In memory of the victims of Preah Vihear

Closing Note: as stated in the associated press release, The Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, the beginning of the end for the SPDC, we must ensure that the Thais do not commit a similar refoulement of Burmese refugees living in the camps along the Thai/Burma border. Also, we would note that the Thai agreement with the Burmese junta to return escaped child soldiers constitutes another form of refoulement and, in the words of one border human rights worker, seals the fate of over 70,000 child soldiers, the vast majority of whom were press ganged into the Burma Army, and which constitutes a formal commitment by the Thais to abuse human rights. These barbaric practices of the Thai government, which contravene all international standards and obligations of civil society, must cease.