When Preah Vihear, a 900-year-old temple in northern Cambodia, near the Thai border, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site on 8 July of this year, it was an occasion for considerable national pride in Cambodia.
But barely two weeks later, following the arrest of three trespassing Thais by Cambodian soldiers, troops from Thailand and Cambodia moved into the area.
Amid much sabre-rattling, numerous meetings and international pressure, tensions ebbed and flowed for 12 weeks, until fighting broke out on 15 October. Although the Thais have better equipped and trained forces, the Cambodian troops have more fighting experience, especially in the area of the temple, one of the last Khmer Rouge redoubts.
With some 1000 troops facing each other it was no surprise when an hour-long exchange of small arms fire led to the deaths of two Thais and three Cambodians, as well as numerous casualties.
This present stand-off between Cambodia and Thailand at the Preah Vihear temple site has deep roots. In the middle of the 1400s, after centuries of Cambodian dominance in the area, the Siamese (Thais) drove the Khmers (Cambodians) out of Angkor following a third invasion. Over the following centuries, as the old Khmer empire shrank, it came under increasing pressure from stronger neighbours to the east and west.
Until the empire became a French protectorate, known as Kampuchea, in 1863, Khmer kings alternately called on Bangkok or a Vietnamese power to shore up their position against challengers.
Although Cambodians have a greater affinity with the Thais through religion, language and cultural traditions than with the Vietnamese, historically the Thais have been only marginally more considerate of Cambodia than the Vietnamese. As recently as 1946 the two of Cambodia’s north-western provinces, Battambang and Siem Reap, were under Thai control. These were returned to Cambodia due to French pressure at the end of World War II.
Today, Cambodians trust neither neighbour, both of whom are seen as coveting their country.
More recently, the World Heritage listing of Preah Vihear was almost derailed by the tangled historical emnity between the two neighbours. The first map submitted to the World Heritage Committee by the Cambodian Government included 4.6 square kilometres adjacent to the temple that Thais maintain is under dispute and should rightfully be acknowledged as Thai territory. Cambodia removed this area from the application and re-submitted with success.
Although it is possible to reach the temple from the Cambodian side — from personal experience, a white-knuckled ride on the back of a ute up a very steep, rough road — most foreign visitors choose to reach it comfortably from the Thai side.
There is a long-felt grievance among Thais, however, that the Preah Vihear temple should not have been placed in Cambodian territory at all. When the border between the two countries was drawn up by France and Thailand in the early 20th century, it was agreed that the border would follow the watershed line. Arguably, this principle wasn’t applied to the Preah Vihear temple, perched on the edge of a 525 metre cliff overlooking the northern plains of Cambodia.
On the basis of this apparent anomaly, Thailand appealed to the International Court of Justice in 1962. The appeal was lost principally because the Thai government had not objected to the placement of the temple in Cambodian territory at the time the borders were drawn. The "watershed question" was not addressed.
This year’s successful listing of the temple as a World Heritage site has played a role in domestic politics on both sides of the border.
In Cambodia, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) milked it in the lead-up to the 26 July election (although their relection never seemed in any doubt). A televised concert was held to celebrate the designation, there were public demonstrations of support and praise flowed in the government-controlled media for Hun Sen. Cambodia’s temples are a source of great national pride: the image of Angkor Wat on the county’s national flag makes it the only one in the world that features ruins.
Commentators in Phnom Penh do not agree as to whether the Preah Vihear designation was ultimately of great electoral benefit to Hun Sen — a politician for whom elections are clearly too important to be left entirely in the hands of voters — but it certainly didn’t hurt. In any case, the opposition was as one with the Government on Preah Vihear, even suggesting the Government’s actions had not done enough to defend the country.
Meanwhile in Thailand it is the opposition, not the Government, that is exploiting the UNESCO decision. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has been holding Somchai Wongsawat’s Government to ransom since its seizure of Government House in August.
PAD has used the Preah Vihear designation and the Thai Government’s role in it as further evidence of corruption, incompetence and spinelessness. They point firstly to a failure to object to the boundaries shown on the map and secondly to the lack of a joint application to the World Heritage Committee.
The ongoing political crisis in Thailand has left the Government ineffective and the result has been a set of inconsistent and uncoordinated responses to border issues.
The Cambodians have shown just how sensitive they are over the temples and their own relationship to Thailand in recent years. In 2003, the Thai embassy and many Thai business premises in Phnom Penh were ransacked in anti-Thai riots, triggered when Thai actress Suwanan Kongying allegedly claimed the Angkor temples belonged to Thailand. There were concerns that the events may have been orchestrated or at least condoned by the Cambodian Govenment. Certainly, they were slow to react to the disturbance.
The violence led to US$50 million worth of damage in the capital, and it’s with these events in mind that the Thai Government has advised Thais to leave Cambodia.
In the meantime, the current crisis has had a big impact on business in Cambodia. The number of foreign tourists, especially from Thailand, had decreased sharply. Turnover at the lucrative border casinos has declined significantly with one report from Poipet suggesting there has been an 80 per cent drop in the number of gamblers in town, most of whom come from Thailand, and many Cambodians are boycotting products from Thailand.
Andrew Symon, writing in Asia Online, suggests that the Preah Vihear stand-off may delay the resolution of an arguably more important border issue — the two countries’ conflicting claims to oil lying beneath the Gulf of Thailand.
Now that the Cambodian election is over, there are some encouraging signs. When Hun Sen and Somchai Wongsawat met at the recent Asia-Europe Meeting in Beijing, they publicly reaffirmed their wish to resolve the issue peacefully. Military commanders continue to meet in the temple district town of Siem Reap (whose name means "Thailand defeated") in an apparent effort to defuse tensions at the temple.
But with some 15 areas on the 800 kilometre land border between Thailand and Cambodia still not defined, and with the Gulf of Thailand borders yet to be resolved, there remain plenty of possible triggers for further conflict.
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