Tej Bunnag has many tasks to come to grips with now he has the reins at the Foreign Ministry, and being thrown in at the deep end of the Preah Vihear dispute could hardly be described as a dream start.
The most sensitive factor in bilateral relations between the two countries is their respective domestic political situations. Recent conflicts between the two neighbours were sparked by bruised nationalism created by political crises on either side.
The Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh would not have been torched in early 2003 if local people had not been agitated by a false statement over Angkor, attributed to a Thai television actress. The statement was completely insignificant, but politicians seized on it for political gain.
Cambodians are very sensitive to anyone claiming their precious historic Hindu temples because these archaeological sites served as the seat of the mighty Khmer civilisation that later became the keystone for the creation of modern Cambodia. Any suggestions, such as those made by some Thai intellectuals, that question modern Cambodians’ links to the ancient Khmer empire, epitomised by the Angkor era, do not sit well.
People in Cambodia are proud of their civilisation. A phrase in the Khmer national anthem says “temples are asleep in the forest, remembering the splendour of Moha Nokor (Great Kingdom).” So it’s unsurprising Cambodians get irate when a neighbour, notably Thailand, claims ownership over their Hindu temples. They are Buddhist. It is not a question of religion but nationalism.
The conflict would never have happened had certain groups of Thais not tried to claim rights over the temple despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962 that it belongs to Cambodia.
Some Thai nationalists may feel the ICJ ruling is unfair since Preah Vihear geographically could be deemed to be situated on Thai territory. The main access to the ruins is via the Thai side, as Cambodians have to climb stairs up a large cliff. Thus, Thailand should have the right to a joint application for World Heritage status, and later, to jointly manage the temple as an attraction.
However, for Cambodia, such arguments are unfair since Preah Vihear legally belongs to Cambodia. Historically and archeologically, the 11th century temple has never looked like part of Thai civilisation. Over its almost 1,000 years of existence, Thailand “occupied” the site only for 100 years. So, it is unacceptable to stake a joint World Heritage claim.
The World Heritage Committee has already made the decision in favour of Cambodia but nationalists on both sides never reached a compromise on the claims.
Further, boosting troop numbers in the temple’s vicinity on July 15 after the World Heritage designation made the problem more complicated. It turned the focus on to the boundary and politicised a routine technical matter, opening the door for nationalists on both sides to play the issue up.
Fortunately, the new Foreign Minister Tej took the job after Cambodia’s general election, which went in favour of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Phnom Penh should now feel more relaxed about handling the dispute. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a full withdrawal of Thai troops from the disputed area but did not seem too dogmatic about it.
However, political tension in Thailand has yet to subside. Attempts to topple Samak Sundaravej’s Cabinet remain and the border issue is an easy target to stir ill-feelings toward the government. A unilateral withdrawal of Thai troops from the disputed area is not an option for Samak’s government but it is not easy to tell Hun Sen to pull out unilaterally, either.
A difficulty for Tej is how to put the hot issue of the boundary back into a technical arena, as it was before the World Heritage claim.
As the co-chairman of the Thailand-Cambodia Commission on the Promotion of Cultural Cooperation and chairman of the Thailand-Cambodia Cultural Association Committee, Tej has been well versed in ways to cure the unease of people on both sides in certain matters. He should be able to cool nationalistic emotions and pave the way for relations to return to a normal footing.