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