PHNOM PENH – This month, thousands of Cambodians poured into in the streets of Phnom Penh waving flags and pounding drums to celebrate the listing of Preah Vihear temple as a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage site.
With such revelry, a people with much darkness and bloody civil conflict in their recent past seemed to be dancing towards a brighter future on the back of their modest triumph.
It was only weeks away from the nation’s fourth post-war general election to be held this Sunday, and an elusive sense of political and economic stability was in the air. At the time Prime Minister
Hun Sen called the decision “a new source of pride for the people of Cambodia”.
But days after the celebration, hundreds of heavily armed troops from Thailand and Cambodia had dug in around the contentious temple site with artillery pieces and rocket launchers trained on the area.
And today, the armed standoff now taking place over ownership of the ancient Hindu temple has become the latest chapter in the neighboring countries’ troubled relationship.
Moreover, the row is gathering international attention. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon on July 21 called for both sides to peacefully resolve the issue and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has offered to mediate between the two countries.
Tempest at a temple
Thailand successfully blocked Cambodia’s efforts to list Preah Vihear in 2006 and 2007 on the grounds that a 4.6 square kilometer stretch of land around the temple compound is still subject to dispute. It is this piece of land, not covered by the recent ruling, where the nations’ forces are facing off.
“You need to look at the history. Vietnam and Thailand both grew while Cambodia shrank since the 14th century, swallowed up bit by bit by those large neighbors,” Cambodian political commentator Chea Vannath told Inter Press Service (IPS). “This is not a recent thing; it is long-running.”
Legally, the temple has belonged to Cambodia since a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962. The ICJ’s 1962 ruling provoked violent protests in Thailand, which has never accepted the verdict and questioned the validity of the map used by Cambodia to claim ownership of the temple, the same map used by UNESCO as the basis for its recent decision.
As of Thursday, according to a Cambodian official, Cambodia had 800 soldiers along the border, compared with 3,000 Thai troops. The Thai Foreign Ministry said Bangkok had only 400 men facing as many as 1,700 Cambodian soldiers. Both sides have moved artillery near a small Buddhist pagoda leading to the ruins of the temple, according to Reuters news agency.
The build-up began on July 15, when Cambodian guards briefly detained three Thais who crossed into the area and refused to leave. Cambodia claims the Thais sent in troops to retrieve their nationals and have been building up their forces since. Thailand denied the charges, saying its soldiers are deployed on Thai territory.
Preah Vihear is again at the center of a complex relationship between Thailand and Cambodia, the result of fluid historical borders that did not begin to coalesce until as recently as the 1950s.
For much of the 19th century, northern Cambodia, including the largest religious complex in the world, Angkor Wat, was ruled by Thailand. France forced Thailand to cede the area to its rule in the 1930s. Thailand took advantage of World War II to take back much of the territory, which was not handed back to Cambodia until after the war.
Cambodia’s independence saw numerous disputes between the two countries. Problems persisted during the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime and grew after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the ultra-Maoist group.
Despite tensions over Phnom Penh’s claim, elements of the Thai military continued to support Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Ties began improving in the 1980s but took a significant turn for the worse in 2003, when mobs burned the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh and a number of Thai-owned businesses. That angry response came after a Cambodian newspaper article alleged that a prominent Thai actress had said that Cambodia had stolen Angkor Wat.
Calling for calm
Sovereignty over the sprawling shrine to Shiva has raised the ire of Thais for decades – but not Cambodians.
“Its Khmer and on Khmer land,” everyday Cambodians will tell you with bemusement over Thai claims to the jungle-clad temple, even if they have never heard of the ICJ. Many believe Cambodia’s consistent stance over the dispute, as opposed to the tenuous political situation in Thailand, will score Cambodia a sound diplomatic victory in the dispute.
In fact, Cambodia’s leadership has approached the military stand-off with a hitherto unheard of maturity, first appealing to ASEAN and then the UN Security Council to take note of the issue.
Rather than allowing the displays of frenzied nationalism that marred the nation’s last duel with Thailand over national heritage in 2003, Cambodia’s politicians have urged for national calm.
“Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen can control the situation. We would like to appeal to the Cambodian people, NGOs, and politicians to keep calm at this time and to not serve as hero. Everyone loves the country, but if we are extremists, a war would break out,” said Information Minister and government spokesperson Khieu Kanharith.
Most Cambodians believe that the crisis has been exacerbated by anti-government forces in Bangkok which have been holding demonstrations since May. Some Cambodian observers believe that the temple issue has stirred a wave of bitterness against Cambodia and the international community over the UNESCO decision in Thailand
“It doesn’t matter if the Thais just fight each other, but they should not take Cambodia as a scapegoat for political purposes,” said Chea Ratha, a young Cambodian student from Phnom Penh on July 20. “The Thai opposition and military should have used a better excuse to make another coup against [former prime minister] Thaksin’s [Shinawatra’s] ally. Groundlessly and unfairly accusing a small and poor nation of taking your land is already ridiculous. [They’re] bullies.”
The Preah Vihear issue has been overexploited by both sides of the border, Dr Lao Mong Hay, a senior researcher for the Asian Human Rights Organization, told Asia Times Online, “The Cambodian government has used it to boost its popular support in this month’s election with the organization of overzealous celebrations of its ‘victory’ over the listing of the temple as a world heritage site, without any consideration of the Thai people’s attachment to the temple and their feelings of humiliation.”
In historically tumultuous Cambodia the political situation is more stable than it has ever been. Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) looks assured of an easy victory which has only been facilitated by the UNESCO decision.
With this in mind, the CPP leadership has alternately taken credit for the UNESCO ruling and called for calm. “Please politicians, do not take this occasion for political gain because Cambodia could be pushed into an unpredictable situation. Please keep calm,” said Kanharith.
Those in Cambodia’s opposition, however, see more dubious and business-minded motivations. “They [the CPP] have tried to take credit for it and have used the state budget to promote themselves as heroes,” Son Chhay, a parliamentarian with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) told IPS.
Just as Thai opposition groups have accused their government of backing the UNESCO application in exchange for business contracts, so too have Cambodia opposition politicians been quick to talk of secret deals.
“A deal has been done, no doubt about it, to jointly manage the Preah Vihear temple,” said Son Chhay. “The Cambodians will get ownership and the Thais will get casinos and hotels. I have no proof in terms of black and white evidence on paper. But we have evidence of meetings between Thai and senior members of the Cambodian government pointing to a deal.”
In Thailand, embattled Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej cannot be seen to be losing political ground to opposition or literal ground to Cambodia. The issue has already caused the resignation of Noppadon Pattama as foreign minister, and he said on July 20 that there is a “systematic attempt to destroy his government”.
According to Mong Hay, the Thai government seems to have overreacted to its people’s burst of nationalism by sending troops to the temple’s area, which only provoked the Cambodian government to send troops up there as well.
“Both sides will only lose if they cannot defuse the tension. It is unlikely the Thais can get back the temple, though they could well turn this highland into their own Golan Heights,” Mong Hay told Asia Times Online.
The Preah Vihear temple had a grim significance during Cambodia’s years of civil conflict. In 1979, it was where Thailand forcibly repatriated thousands of Cambodian refugees who had fled across the mountain border to escape the Khmer Rouge, ordering them to march down the steep slopes back to their country.
As British journalist William Shawcross wrote of the scene in his book The Quality of Mercy: The path down the mountains became steeper, the jungle thicker. Dozens, scores of people fell onto mines. Those with possessions had to abandon them to carry their children down. One group of refugees desperately pooled whatever valuables they had left, filled two buckets with them, and walked back up toward the Thai soldiers, carrying a white flag. The soldiers took the buckets and then shot the refugees.”
The temple, which has been described as an “oasis of peace” was only regained by Cambodian government troops from the Khmer Rouge in 1998. If the situation worsens it could again become the site of conflict among ethnic Khmers.
Many of the Thai troops now camped outside the holy site are from Thailand’s Isan and Surin areas which have been home to generations of ethnic Khmer. Accounts from the stalemate zone have reported that Khmer speakers have jokingly promised to shoot in the air rather than at their Khmer brothers.
Craig Guthrie is a reporter for the Mekong Times newspaper in Phnom Penh. He has covered Cambodian affairs since 2004.
(Additional reporting by Inter Press Service.)