When me and my big brother squabbled as kids we poked and jibed and wound each other up. Sometimes one would overstep the mark (me) and patience would finally snap (his). Occasionally one would get a bloody nose (me) and one would have a indignant tantrum to make up for it (me again).
But even as kids we understood it was all a bit silly, not worth fighting for. In fact most of the time I doubt we could remember what started it (though clearly it was always him). At some level we knew we didn’t really hate each other, that the bonds between us were way stronger than any passing dispute.
The squabbles on the Thai - Cambodian border, now uncomfortably near my home, may seem similarly petty, at least to an outside observer. I live just on the Cambodian side, so I’m still in the smaller simpling’s corner, puffing out my little chest and bigging up my Khmer Rouge battle-hardiness, even though everyone says my Thai brother is way stronger and better equipped than me (like having an airforce for example).
A Cambodian friend suggested Thailand is like a big bully who is better at everything than its little upstart sibling (richer, more developed, longer coastline, more Tesco supermarkets, more kickboxing medals, you name it).
But not quite everything. The one thing it doesn’t have is a proper big temple. Which then becomes the only thing it really wants! Thus, despite its embarrassment of riches, the giant to the west will never be happy until it has the one thing it can’t have – Angkor Wat. Far-fetched? Maybe, though it was part of Thailand as recently at 1904. And why else would there be a large scale model of it in the royal palace – in Bangkok?
Religion - or places of worship at least - certainly has some part in this. The recent skirmishes are ostensibly about ownership of buddhist temples which line the northern border.
That’s right, buddhist. You know the one, the gentle fat bloke who said killing anything was wrong and that we should all live in peace and harmony to achieve nirvana. I doubt he’d be impressed by his followers on both sides killing each other to own places built to worship him.
Which suggests it’s not just about temples – they’ve been there for hundreds of years, and are not going anywhere fast. Unless, that is, we adopt my translator’s whimsical but rather astute solution: let’s demolish all the temples on the border and divide the bricks evenly. Unthinkable - but think about it: are these stones really worth the lives of the dozen soldiers already killed this week, not to mention scores of wounded and hundreds of families forced from their homes? Don’t you think the peace-loving Buddha would approve?
Sadly, at the time of writing the conflict continues, with more people killed and injured every day. Recent fighting has spread west from the disputed temple at Preah Vihear to other temples much nearer to my home.
At first I wasn’t too concerned. There were flair-ups earlier and in previous years, and they seemed to be contained and to die down.
But despite my cool façade, I’m now a bit nervous. Yesterday I realized that the unusual thunder in the night was actually rocket-propelled grenades. And the more I listened to the rumours – about poisen gas, air-raids, Vietnnamese troops, you name it – the more I was unsettled. I doubt much of it is true, but it’s all people talk about all day, and the tension of being near conflict is real.
I have no idea how people manage to live their whole lives in real warzones. Painful as it is to admit it, even this relatively minor and distant fighting has at some level broken the spell of this charming, peaceful place, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite as contented here again.
Most of the time it’s ok though. There’s nothing really to see - a few richer families are leaving, and others are digging bunkers - but mainly life goes on as always.
The main battle here is against the rising heat and humidity. The village has no mains power, and the aging generators rarely worked this week: so no computer to see the latest fighting, but more pressingly no fans or fridges.
Perhaps we should just blame the heat - and the powercuts - on our sneeky Thai brethren. After all, they poison our food, flood our land, inflate our gas prices, steal our women… I know, because I heard it from the men over rice-wine last night.
And perhaps that’s what this is really about: politics. Specifically the most cynical, despicable stoking of nationalist sentiment among largely uneducated populations, aided by state-controlled media, to win votes and cling to power at forthcoming elections. Is that what the fighting’s for?
Whether it's nationalism or religion fuelling this conflict, one thing is clear: the border, the land, the temples, none of them is worth the blood of one soldier, the land of one farmer, the school of one child.
So as I settle down to another less than restful night, I’m hoping those with the power to do so stop this stupid, destructive, pointless conflict.
Let me get back to fighting the heat and the creepy crawlies. Let us resume our battle with the real enemies of illness, illiteracy, poverty. And let us all return to living with and loving each other as brothers.