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Temple Furor Exposes Delicate Ties

by Bertil Lintner

A temple complex near the Thai-Cambodian border has pitted not only the two countries against each other but also Thai opposition political parties against the government of Samak Sundaravej. At the heart of the dispute is whether Thailand should accept a map that demarcates the border around the temple, which Cambodia wants to have listed as a World Heritage Site with Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Thailand has long been opposed to that and argued that the site includes not only the temple but also part of a Thai national park. Therefore, Bangkok’s traditional stance was that Thailand and Cambodia should jointly administer the site. Or the border would have to be clearly defined. But on June 17, Samak’s foreign ministry accepted a map presented by the Cambodian side—and the Thai opposition has clearly taken advantage of the unpopular decision, stirring up nationalist sentiments against the increasingly embattled government.

It is a sensitive issue on both sides of the border. The temple, Prasat Preah Vihear in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, and Prasat Khao Phra Viharn in Thai, was built in the 11th and 12th centuries by Cambodian kings at a time when the Khmer empire was large and prosperous. But as the empire fell apart, territories were lost to neighboring countries—including Thailand, which explains the existence of Khmer temples in modern day Thai provinces. The biggest such temple, Phanom Rung in Buriram Province, is well inside Thailand and has therefore never been disputed. But Preah Vihear is located on the top of a cliff, 525 meters above the Cambodian plain, from which it is almost inaccessible. Thais argue that it is on the Thai side of the watershed, and therefore should belong to Thailand. And almost all access to the temple throughout history has been from what now is Thailand’s Sisaket Province.

When Cambodia was a French protectorate, French maps showed it as being on the Cambodian side. The Thais were hardly in a position to protest, but when the French left Cambodia in 1953, the Thais soon moved in and occupied it. The Thai flag flew on a post near the cliff, so it could be clearly visible from the plain below. In 1959, Cambodia severed diplomatic relations with Thailand and lodged a complaint with the World Court in The Hague. On June 15, 1962, the court ruled by nine to three that Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia. The Thai army was prepared to go to war over the issue, but the king intervened and told them to respect the decision of the World Court.

During the Cambodian civil war in the early 1970s, republican forces loyal to Lon Nol’s government in Phnom Penh controlled the temple—and, given its location on the top of a cliff, it was easy to defend against the communist Khmer Rouge. Tourists were even able to visit it—but they had to enter the site from the Thai side. It did not fall into communist hands until the end of the war in 1975.

After the Vietnamese invasion in 1978-79, the temple became a base for the Khmer Rouge resistance forces. Even Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot received foreign journalists there in 1979—indicating that also he had entered Cambodia from the Thai side. It was not until 1998 that the Preah Vihear once again was in the hands of Phnom Penh. It has since then been opened for tourists, who do not need a visa for Cambodia as it is almost impossible to go from there to other places in the country.

For the Cambodians, Preah Vihear is part of their heritage and they fought and won in an international court to have their claims recognized. Next in importance to Angkor Wat, it is a strong symbol of Cambodian nationalism. Many Thais, on their part, have never forgiven Cambodia for winning at the World Court, and strongly believe that the temple complex should belong to Thailand.

Fragile Relations

Seen in a broader perspective, the row over Preah Vihear reflects the delicate nature of Thai-Cambodian relations. Many Cambodians see the Thais as bullying neighbors who do not really respect their independence. Tensions flared into riots after a Thai actress in January 2003 was reported to have said that Angkor Wat—definitely the national symbol of Cambodia—should belong to Thailand. It once did: first until 1907, when Thailand had to cede the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap—where Angkor Wat is located—and Sisophon to France, and again when western Cambodia was occupied by the Thais during World War II. The actress’ alleged remark made Phnom Penh explode in a fiery outburst of anti-Thai demonstrations. Protesters broke into the Thai Embassy, which was set on fire, and offices of Thai companies in the Cambodian capital were ransacked by angry mobs. The then Thai ambassador to Cambodia was forced to flee.

It was alleged at the time that the Cambodian authorities had allowed the riots to take place in order to get popular support by playing on nationalist feelings. The fact that gangs of youths could roam around Phnom Penh seemingly freely for hours destroying Thai property in their path, lends some credence to this suggestion.

In a similar but nonviolent way, the Thai opposition is now using the Preah Vihear issue to garner support for its campaign to unseat Mr. Samak’s government. Preah Vihear was on the top of a list of six issues that opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva raised before the Thai parliament when it met to vote on a no-confidence motion against the government on June 26. Mr. Abhisit said that Thailand had never accepted the map that Cambodia presented to the World Court in 1962. He also said that Thailand intended to seek the return of Preah Vihear “when the opportunity arose.” By endorsing a new, slightly revised map, Mr. Samak’s government had given “up the rights that Thailand had always upheld,” the Bangkok Post quoted Mr. Abhisit as saying on June 25.

The antigovernment People’s Alliance for Democracy also protested, and Thailand’s Administrative Court has issued an injunction against the Foreign Ministry’s support for the Cambodian proposal to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site. It is also clear that the Thai opposition is using the issue to hit at former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is widely believed to wield significant influence over the current government. The opposition has alleged that the Thai Foreign Ministry agreed to accept the Cambodian map in order to secure business concessions for Mr. Thaksin in the neighboring country, pointing out that the foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama, was a lawyer for Mr. Thaksin before taking up his current post. Both Mr. Thaksin and the government vehemently deny this.

On June 23, Cambodia closed the border crossing at Preah Vihear. But the issue is unlikely to go away; there is simply too much national pride at stake in Thailand as well as in Cambodia.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, July, 2008

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