Associated Press Writer Thu Jun 26,
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – High on a Cambodian cliff, the Preah Vihear temple has weathered war and territorial disputes. Now it’s at the center of a political tug-of-war in neighboring Thailand.
As it has over the centuries, the ancient temple is fueling nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border, and opposition supporters in the Thai parliament are raising it as a reason for why the prime minister should step down.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej last week endorsed Cambodia’s bid to register the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage site — enraging opposition lawmakers who say he is yielding national sovereignty to Cambodia.
Never mind that the International Court of Justice awarded the temple and the land it stands on to Cambodia in 1962 — it remains an issue in both countries.
“The Preah Vihear temple is part of a wounded history of Thailand and Cambodia,” said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “It was used to stir up a nationalist movement during World War II, and again during the Cold War … and is now threatening to inflame politics again.”
The crumbling stone temple, which is a few hundred feet from Thailand’s eastern border with Cambodia, is the centerpiece of a no-confidence motion against Samak. The opposition accuses the prime minister of policy mistakes and of being a proxy for deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
“Preah Vihear is the knockout punch” that could bring down Samak, opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told Parliament. However, Samak’s ruling coalition has an overwhelming majority, and he is expected to easily survive Friday’s vote.
The dispute comes shortly before the World Heritage Committee starts its annual meeting July 2 to consider bids for special status, which helps attract funds for preservation of a site as well as raising its tourism profile.
Thai senators sent a petition to UNESCO this week asking that consideration of Cambodia’s request be deferred until both countries file a joint nomination for World Heritage status. UNESCO has not responded.
Anger is simmering on both sides of the border, particularly in Thailand.
“The Temple of Gloom,” ran one banner headline in The Nation newspaper, under a photo taken in March of Samak shaking hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Samak insists his endorsement of Cambodia’s bid has no effect on Thai sovereignty, saying the temple belongs to Cambodia and the Cambodians are entitled to seek its listing as a World Heritage site. A stretch of disputed territory around the temple was not included in the request to UNESCO, Samak told lawmakers.
Thai protesters have gathered near the hilltop site since Sunday, singing patriotic songs and shouting that the temple belongs to Thailand, said Hang Soth, director-general of Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Authority.
As a result, Cambodia closed the border gate that leads from Thailand to the temple.
Preah Vihear, a Hindu-themed temple that reflects the beliefs of the kings who ruled what was then the Angkorean empire, is located on the top of a 1,722-foot cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, about 150 miles north of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Reaching it by road is easiest from the Thai side of the border.
“We are the owners of the temple, and it has nothing to do with Thailand,” said Moeung Son, a Cambodian tour group operator and founder of the Khmer Civilization Foundation.
Last week, his group held a rally in Phnom Penh to support Cambodia’s UNESCO bid and dispel what he called the “myth among some Thais who say that Preah Vihear temple is theirs.”
Built between the 9th and 11th centuries, the stone temple is revered partly for having one of the most stunning locations of all the temples constructed during the Khmer empire — the most famous of which is Angkor Wat.
As the Khmer empire, which once encompassed parts of Thailand and Vietnam, shrank to the size of present-day Cambodia and the country was plunged into civil war, the temple fell into disrepair. Steps, walls and pillars have collapsed.
Hun Sen has pledged “a serious commitment” to building a road to the temple “whatever the cost.”
Associated Press Writers Jocelyn Gecker and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, Thailand contributed to this report.