On Preah Vihear

Start with one ancient temple crouched on a disputed border, wrap in a questionable French map, sprinkle with dodgy politicians, stir in a pending Khmer election, lather the whole mix up with some Thai political opportunism, then complete with a few hundred armed soldiers, ASEAN and a World Heritage listing. There you have it: one well-done Preah Vihear.

For the last few weeks the Thai press and politicians have been obsessing over the grand Khmer ruins that sit atop the escarpment of the Dangrek Mountains on the Khmer/Thai border. Tensions have escalated in the last few days — with Thai troops entering Cambodian territory and Cambodian soldiers asking them (so far, very politely) to please go home. The situation has been greatly exacerbated by nationalism on both sides: Cambodia has an election this weekend while Thailand is in the throes of a long-running political crisis.

So what’s it all about?

Construction of Preah Vihear commenced in the 9th century, but most of what you see today was built between the 10th and 12th centuries. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Back in those days, the temple was within territory controlled by the Khmer Empire (which, on a much-reduced scale, forms the basis for modern-day Cambodia).

Much later, in 1904, Thailand (then Siam) and Cambodia (then ruled by the French) worked to demarcate their border. At the time, officials decided that the border would follow the watershed line of the Dangrek Mountains. What’s a watershed? It’s a ridge of high land that divides two areas drained by different river systems — some may know it as a water parting. The watershed embroiled in this case runs along the highpoints of the Dangrek Mountains — water can’t flow uphill after all. And this decision firmly put Preah Vihear within Thailand’s territory.

However, in 1907, after the survey work was completed, French officials drew up a map that was supposed to precisely delineate the frontier. This map, which was sent to the Siamese, clearly marked Preah Vihear as being in Cambodia. One would have expected the Siamese to get in touch with the French and let them know that the map didn’t conform to their agreement on demarcation following the watershed.

But, for whatever reason, the Siamese didn’t. These two errors — first by the French in drawing the dodgy map, and then by the Thais in agreeing with it — are the root of the debacle now spilling out, 101 years after the fact.

Following the completion of the 1907 map, little more was said of Preah Vihear for the next almost half century. But in 1954, Thai military forces occupied the site after the withdrawal of French troops from the country. Cambodia protested the occupation to the international community and in 1959 asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on where the temple lay.

On June 15, 1962, the ICJ ruled 9 to 3 that Preah Vihear indeed belonged to Cambodia. In the ruling, the court noted that over the preceding five decades Thailand had made no effort to object to the map. That the Thais had not understood the map was wrong, nor that they possessed the only practical access to the temple — both points the Thais argued — were insufficient grounds to refute the map. You can read the ICJ ruling here. Thailand wasn’t happy.

So here we are 40 years later and Preah Vihear is once again in the news.

In 2007, Cambodia submitted an application to UNESCO to have Preah Vihear listed as a World Heritage site. As a part of the application, the request included the immediate surrounding land, which Thailand believes it has jurisdiction over. The Thais protested and the Cambodians withdrew the application.

In 2008, the Cambodians again submitted the application, but on this occasion the application sought designation for the temple only — not the surrounds. The Thai government failed to protest — an odd move, as to this day the Thais still assert that the temple is rightly theirs — and signed off on the map Cambodia presented in support of its application. Thailand’s support was seen as crucial for the application to succeed.

The Thai opposition then alleged that a backroom deal had been done, pointing the finger at deposed ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has substantial business interests in Cambodia. The opposition claimed that his former personal lawyer, Noppadon Pattama, who just happened to be the Thai Foreign Minister and who signed off on Cambodia’s application, manoevred the deal. Noppadon has since been forced to resign.

Despite the Thai political posturing, the Cambodians lodged the application, and on July 7 Preah Vihear was inscribed on the list of World Heritage sites.

Since then political posturing has flared further in both Thailand and Cambodia, with the Cambodians describing the current stand-off between hundreds of soldiers on either side of the border as “an imminent state of war”. Cambodia has asked both the UN Security Council and ASEAN, who are currently meeting in Singapore, to intervene on their behalf.

Where to from here?

It’s difficult to see either side backing down. If blame needs to be assigned, most rests with Thailand. From 1907 to today their approach to the temple has been erratic and error-prone. They never protested the original map and also missed a decade-long deadline to argue the ICJ judgement. While the allegations of Thaksin’s involvement certainly don’t defy belief, no hard proof has emerged to support the claims made by the Thai opposition, who have proved themselves repeatedly to be political opportunists.

Perhaps following the Cambodian election the rhetoric will subside, but in Thailand, the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) show no signs of cooling off. One would hope that sooner rather than later the PAD will come to grips with the facts — but until then, the magnificent Khmer temple remains off-limits.

Further reading:
Border areas in question
Detailed analysis by Bangkok Pundit
Historical perspective in the Bangkok Post
ICJ ruling
Summary of events in the Christian Science Monitor
UNESCO listing for Preah Vihear

So what’s in a date?

I was browsing through Lonely Planet’s Thorntree messageboard a few days ago and came across a handy review by Andy Brouwer of their new Guidebook to Cambodia by long-time Cambodia resident, Nick Ray. The review was pretty good — even if the comments rambled off into a typical Thorntree monotone. You can read the review here.

I popped over to the Lonely Planet store to see if Lonely Planet had finally managed to run a cover that had neither a monk nor Angkor Wat on it (no luck) and was surprised to see the book was published in August 2008. Andy seemed to suggest that he had an advance copy from Nick, so fair enough, the book wouldn’t be out till August, but then, on July 19 there’s a comment by another Thorntree poster noting they’d just picked up a copy in a Chiang Mai bookstore.

So if the book is in a Chiang Mai bookstore by mid July, it’s probably also in Bangkok bookstores and no doubt some airport bookstores in the region. Sure it probably isn’t in a family-run bookstore in Lima and it certainly isn’t in my local Bali Periplus store — but then, they never managed to get the previous edition, so I won’t hold my breath.

So what? Does anyone really care?

Probably not.

Rightly or wrongly, people use the publication date as a means to judge how up to date the book is. Last year when I was reviewing some guidebooks, I raised the question with Simone McNamara at Lonely Planet and she said:

“The pub date is the ‘on-shelf’ date for our guidebooks in the vast majority of the world. Some Asian markets are lucky to have ‘hot off the press’ books as all our printing is done in Asia and there is minimal shipping time. Typically, Asian markets are able to get the books several weeks prior to the official pub date, which is why you were able to pick up a copy of Vietnam in late July, whereas in Australia the title has only just gone on shelves this week (same goes for US / UK etc). It’s a small thing, but I thought I should clarify as there is certainly no attempt to be dishonest with our publishing schedules.”

So make of that what you will.

Personally, I would have thought that given the “Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?” debacle of earlier this year in which ex-Lonely Planet author Thomas Kohnstamm wrote about making stuff up, taking freebies and generally being the anti-lp-writer, Lonely Planet would have made that extra effort to get their facts right. (Kohnstamm’s book, by the way, is appalling).

A great improvement to this system would be for Lonely Planet to state in the half cover, perhaps on the line beneath their version of the publication date, when the research was actually undertaken — now there’s a date that would be useful — but as with my local Periplus store, don’t hold your breath.

Travelfish turns five!

Five long years ago today Travelfish.org went live. To celebrate five years online, we’re running a Buy One Get One sale over at the Travelfish Guide store.

For each Travelfish Guide you buy, you can get another one for free. There’s no small print, there’s no catch — all you need to do is buy one through the Travelfish Guides section of the site, then send us an email to travelfishguides@travelfish.org telling us the following:

a) Your Travelfish member name;
b) The name of the guides you purchased; and
c) Which extra guides you’d like

This isn’t price conditional — so you’re welcome to buy a US$2.95 copy of our Kampot & Kep Guide and request a copy of our $6.95 Vietnam Central Highlands Guide. You’re also welcome to buy as many as you want. Buy one, get one free — buy two, get two free — buy three, get three — you get the idea, though remember as we only have 15 titles at the moment, there’s no point buying more than eight!

Just in case you forgot, here’s the current titles:

Champasak $2.95
Hanoi $5.95
Ho Chi Minh City $3.95
Kampot & Kep $2.95
Kanchanaburi $3.95
Ko Phi Phi $3.95
Ko Samet $3.95
Ko Tao $3.95
Luang Prabang $4.95
Phnom Penh $3.95
Phuket $3.95
Remote Southern Laos $2.95
Siem Reap & Angkor Wat $4.95
Vientiane $2.95
Vietnam’s Central Highlands $6.95

Like all good things, this Travelfish sale doesn’t last forever — it starts right now and finishes in FIVE DAYS at 16:00 (GMT +8) July 17.

Best wishes and happy travels,

Samantha and Stuart