The Preah Vihear Dispute

The mobilization of troops by Thailand and Cambodia along the border near the ancient Hindu temple and the adjoining territory of 4.6kms or 1.8 square miles has surprised Southeast Asia watchers. The ancient clash of empires has resurfaced in modern times in a different form to challenge the peace and tranquility of this ‘economy-oriented’ region of Southeast Asia. This "imminent state of war" has led to a steep decline in bilateral relations. In the meantime, rumours about the occupation of another temple (Ta Muem Thom) at Thai-Cambodian border by the Thai forces have further deteriorated the situation.

Preah Vihear or Prasat Preah Viharn is an ancient Hindu temple complex situated on the Thai-Cambodian border at some six hundred meters above the sea level in the Dangrek mountains. Preah Vihear is known as Khao Phra in Thailand. These temples were built during Khmer empire period between the ninth to eleventh centuries. The temple complex and the adjoining areas had been the cause of dispute between the two nations since the colonial period, and after the French withdrawal from Cambodia in 1954, the Thai forces occupied the temple complex. The Cambodian government lodged a protest and took the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 1962, the ICJ upheld the Cambodian sovereignty over the temple complex. The court primarily based its judgment on the fact that Thailand had accepted the 1904 border demarcation, and hence could no longer deny it.

The recent controversy started with the recognition of Preah Vihear as a world heritage site. In response to Cambodia’s bid, the world heritage council of UNESCO placed the Preah Vihear temple on its list of protected monuments or world heritage sites on 17 June 2008. The Thai opposition parties claimed that the Thai government had failed to protect the nation’s sovereignty and allowed the Cambodian bid to go to UNESCO, hence foregoing the claim over the disputed territory. The opposition parties felt that the heritage status to the temple on a Cambodian bid would cloud Thailand’s claim of the territory. Although the Thai Prime Minister Samak initially labeled the opposition as ‘crazy people,’ the government ultimately succumbed to the pressure.

The Thai Foreign Minister, Noppadon Pattame had to resign under allegations of failing to protect Thailand’s interest and working covertly for former Prime Minister Thaksin’s business interests. Samak changed his tone and stated that the Cambodian presence at the temple "is a continued violation of the Thailand’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." After that Thailand initiated a troop build-up near the temple complex. In mid-July, there were more than 4000 soldiers from both sides near the temple complex. Talks between the two parties have failed to yield any result and both the countries are involved in mere rhetoric. Though the Cambodian government has informed the United Nations Security Council about the situation at the border, it has insisted that the matter be resolved through bilateral efforts. Now both the parties are laying claims and counterclaims. The Cambodian side says that as per the 1962 ruling of the ICJ, the temple complex belongs to Cambodia. The Cambodians also cite the removal of Thailand’s objections to Cambodia’s bid to UNESCO as a vindication of their stand. However, the Thai side says that it had announced its reservation to the right of temple and believes that the temple and the adjoining territory is disputed land between the two countries. Many scholars have also questioned the basis of the ICJ’s judgment in 1962.

The domestic political equation within Thailand has further deteriorated the situation. The Preah Vihear issue has provided a platform to the Thai opposition parties to trouble the embattled government of Samak Sundravej. In the meantime, on 27 July polls, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s party extended its lead in the national elections in Cambodia. Critics feel that the temple controversy has been used for domestic political purposes by both sides. The relationship between the two neighbors has always been delicate. This has largely been due to the ancient historical clash of empires between the Khmer empire of Cambodia and the Ayuthya Empire of Thailand. The Cambodians regard the Khmer period as the golden period of Cambodia and take pride in the Khmer legacies and monuments. Any attempt to occupy that legacy is thereby, protested fiercely in Cambodia. For example, five years ago, a rumour about a Thai actress claming Thai sovereignty over the Angkor Wat temple led to the burning down of Thai embassy in Phnom Penh by Cambodian masses.

Given the strenuous relationship between the two countries, it is the responsibility of not only their respective governments, but also the opposition parties to behave in a responsible manner. Even the role of the mass media remains under the scanner. For now, it would be prudent for the ASEAN and the neighbouring countries to use its good offices to help the two parties find an amicable solution.