Built at the height of the Khmer empire, the 900-year-old temple of Preah Vihear now lies at the heart of a vicious border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.
For decades, Preah Vihear has been witness to a war of words and sporadic fights between Cambodian and Thai troops over territorial claims.
The 11th century cultural tourist site lies at the heart of a border dispute that harks back 100 years and was re-ignited in 1954 when Thai forces occupied the temple following French withdrawal from Cambodia. Cambodia’s successful bid to have the temple listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in July 2008 sparked the recent series of cross-border spats and political posturing. Since then, nationalists, media sensationalists and politicians pursuing private agendas have commandeered the temple. All the while, tourists and cultural enthusiasts are left waiting in the wings for the curtain to finally close on the drama, so they can visit this World Heritage site in peace.
It is in no one’s interest for the issue to spiral out of control, for the disputed land surrounding the temple to turn into a ‘zone of death’, as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, once threatened or for Thailand to employ military force to resolve the issue, as The Nation quoted Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as saying in August. Dialogue, with or without Asean as a mediating body, is the best hope for a peaceful solution. But why is this conflict dragging on? Who, or what, is adding fuel to the fire?
The watershed affair
The 900-year-old temple was built at the height of the Khmer empire. In 1904, Siam and French authorities ruling Cambodia formed a joint commission to demarcate their mutual border along the watershed line of the Dangrek mountain range, which would have placed nearly all of Preah Vihear temple on Thailand’s side. However, when France drew up a topographic map to identify the border’s location in 1907, the line deviated from the watershed in the Preah Vihear area, placing the entire temple within Cambodia. Crucially, Thailand did not immediately contest this map, on which the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling concluded the temple was “situated in territory under the Sovereignty of Cambodia” was based.
Though the ruling settled the temple issue, it left open the now disputed 4.6 sq km of land that lies in the area of the watershed line near the temple.
The territorial row, which simmered for years, reached boiling point when Preah Vihear was listed as a World Heritage site in 2008. Since then misinformed nationalist groups have cried outrage, the media has shamelessly inflamed the issue, diplomacy has failed and over ten people have been killed and many more injured in cross-border fire.
A tale of two issues
To understand the conflict, it is important to separate the border dispute from the temple – while they are intricately linked, ultimately they are two distinct issues.
The temple sits on a cliff top and is only easily accessible from the north, which is in Thailand. There is little dispute over the Cambodian-owned temple, but rather the 4.6 sq km surrounding land, that is claimed by both Cambodia and Thailand – who doesn’t recognise the 1907 border.
In June 2000, Cambodia and Thailand signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the survey and demarcation of their shared 800km long borderline. In it both sides agreed not to develop the frontier zones until a common boundary is established.
In 2008, the two countries signed a Joint Communique, which paved the way for Preah Vihear’s inscription as a World Heritage site in the same year. The agreement details the spirit of cooperation of both countries towards the temple’s inscription and stipulates its new status does not affect border demarcation.
Bizarrely, to date the Cambodian government has not disseminated copies of either agreement or the attached conditions to the public. And it is even more remarkable that the Cambodian press has not questioned why. In fact, the existence of the 2008 agreement is little known in Cambodia.
While Thai governments – under Samak Sundaravei, Somchai Wongsawat and Abhisit Vejjajiva – have regularly referred to recent mutual agreements and decisions to address the border dispute, their Cambodian counterpart disregards such documents, instead falling back on decisions made more than 100 years ago.
As a condition attached to the temple’s inscription as a World Heritage site, Cambodia must produce a management plan in cooperation with Thailand and an international group of up to seven countries. The plan submitted to the 34th World Heritage Committee session in June addresses archaeological, historical and cultural issues, but failed to include Thailand or an international group in the discussion. Obviously, this bears the risk that Thai PM Abhisit will not accept any World Heritage Committee procedure unless Thailand is involved in drafting the management plan.
With Cambodia and Thailand once again at an impasse, the World Heritage Committee decided to postpone the discussion of the management plan unilaterally developed by Cambodia until the next meeting in Bahrain next year – something the Cambodians seem to consider a “victory”.
Politics of nationalism
The Thai national group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has adopted Preah Vihear and the border dispute as a rallying point in their anti-government protests – despite the fact they often confuse the two issues and present muddled, mis-informed arguments. For example, in August when PAD demonstrated outside the Unesco Bangkok office calling for an end to the 2000 MoU because it ‘turned a Thai territory into a disputed territory’, Abhisit clarified that the agreement had no provision that could be construed as conceding to the 1907 French-drawn map. On the contrary, he told the leaders during a three-hour live television debate, the MoU effectively turns land Cambodia says belongs to them into a disputed territory.
“Abhisit clearly separates the border issue from the temple issue,” says Norbert Klein, founder of The Mirror, an online site that provides a daily overview of the Khmer language press in English. “The Thai demonstrators confuse the two, or want to bind them together. Abhisit is careful not to do this, firstly because they are distinct issues, and secondly because the 2000 border MoU is valuable for Thailand in it’s own right, whatever happens to Preah Vihear.”
Given the temple has fed nationalistic fervour that contributed to the resignation of foreign minister Noppadon Pattama in 2008, the Thai government cannot be seen to back down and must appease nationalist factions of their electorate.
Across the border, national fervour is easily whipped up in a country little proud of its recent history but immensely proud of its Angkorian heritage,
Whether whipping up a frenzy or calming a storm, leaders in both countries exploit nationalism to further their political agenda, distract attention from domestic issues, or to use it as an electoral tactic as Hun Sen did in 2008.
In 2003, Hun Sen was partially blamed for stirring up anti-Thai sentiments that led to Cambodian nationalists burning down the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh after a Thai actress was misquoted as saying Angkor Wat should belong to Thailand.
It is interesting to observe, however, that in both countries, the government and the opposition easily unite when they question how to deal with Preah Vihear. For instance, the Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy now praises Hun Sen for bringing the problem to the United Nations.
War of words
Diplomacy, which has repeatedly fallen at the wayside during this dispute, has been replaced by a war of words and tit for tat name-calling.
Whether verbal provocation has been intentional or a series of unfortunately timed gaffs, cross-border spats are stymieing and ridiculing the dispute. In August, Pen Ngoeun, advisor to the office of the council of ministers and a member of the advisory board of its press and quick reaction unit, published a letter saying Thailand’s “intoxicating” campaign makes them act like a “hungry dog that missed a good piece of meat”. Such comments are hardly conducive to finding a peaceful and speedy solution.
Meanwhile sensationalist media stories on both sides of the border fuel the conflict with inaccurate reporting, preferring to use emotive language over facts. The most recent round of spats was sparked when The Nation quoted Abhisit threatening the use of military means to end the border dispute. Abhisit says his comments were taken out of context, but the damage was done. Hun Sen used it as a pretext to call on Asean to act as a third party mediator, while Abhisit’s calls for his neighbour to base decisions on bilateral talks and not on media reports fell on deaf ears.
Meanwhile in Cambodia, the press is seemingly more interested in deciding if the World Heritage Committee decision was delayed, postponed, deferred or adjourned than questioning why their government is not being held accountable to agreements made with Thailand and world bodies.
It is in neither country’s interest to let the conflict get out of hand. If both governments can hold back on incendiary comments and respect agreements, then it should be possible to do as Hun Sen suggested in early August and use, “dialogue to solve the rest of the problem. I don’t want winning or losing – it is better that we win together solving this problem.”
Leaders may have to persuade nationalist factions that a joint Thai-Cambodian World Heritage site makes sense, while the media may have to refrain from using inflammatory language to boost sales.
All official documents and maps relating to the Preah Vihear conflict can be found on the Cambodian Mirror website.