preah vihear temple – The grass around the border-hugging temple, once trimmed short and neat, is now tall and overgrown. Soldiers, once sleeping in tents, are dug in with machine guns laying in wait at the hilltop. Surrounding the military supplies and weapons, a new banner and flag proclaim the ancient Khmer temple as a genuine World Heritage Site.
Although exactly one year has passed since the naming of Preah Vihear temple as a heritage site, the row lingers on between Thailand and Cambodia over the territory surrounding the temple. And as Cambodia gears up to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the structure’s Heritage Site listing, some wonder if the country’s commemoration could spark another violent conflict at the frontier.
RCAF Brigade 8 Commander Yim Pim said it is likely that Thailand, especially its soldiers stationed near the temple, will not be keen on the party hosted by the government in Phnom Penh.
“The Thais are sad with us when we celebrate this event, but we have to celebrate because [the temple] belongs to Cambodia and the site does not belong to Thailand,” he said, adding, however, that he believes the situation will not worsen because of the celebration.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the celebration slated for today is a “victory for humankind” and a salute to Cambodia’s cultural achievement, not a political thumb-in-the-eye to Thailand. He said the real contention between the neighboring countries is the 4.6 square km of disputed border land and not the ownership of the monument.
“They accept the temple belongs to Cambodia,” he said about Thailand. “The temple issue is a cultural one.”
He also mentioned that Thai officials have shown promising signs on their willingness to negotiate but stated that the continuing border row is detrimental to the safety of the temple.
Celebrations erupted in the streets of Phnom Penh after officials announced the Khmer structure was unanimously accepted as a World Heritage Site on July 8, 2008. An estimated 8,000 attended a government-led rally filled with pomp and circumstance at the capital’s Olympic Stadium, where audience members sported Preah Vihear T-shirts and Cambodian flags.
But the festivities were short-lived as the listing prompted a growing political rift in Thailand to widen. Upset over the handling of the Preah Vihear issue and believing the Cambodian inscription of the temple might weaken Thailand’s position in border negotiations, then-opposition and anti-government Thai leaders began protesting in Bangkok and near the temple, a movement that eventually grew to topple the government by the end of the year.
On July 15, 2008, a week after World Heritage registration, three Thai protestors illegally crossed the border to enter the locked-down temple. The trio were arrested, prompting Thai troops to cross the border to demand their release. In the immediate aftermath, both sides bolstered their troop levels near the temple, with soldiers from each side often positioned practically on top of one another. Defense Minister Tea Banh told Cambodian forces during a visit to the temple to prepare for “a long-term standoff.”
An uneasy calm settled over the area but it was finally shattered in October when the two sides first traded fire in a brief skirmish at the disputed Veal Entry, or Eagle Field. There were no casualties, but on Oct 15 fighting broke out again, this time in a far more serious fashion, killing three RCAF troops. A number of Thai troops were taken captive in the fighting, although the Thai government has persistently denied that this was the case. Both sides traded blame over who triggered the hour-long skirmish.
In the intervening months, talks between the two have flowered and withered. Both countries continued to dig in and fortify their positions although lines of communication remained open.
Sporadic fighting broke out once again on April 3, 2008, killing at least one Thai soldier. In the second of two firefights on that day, a rocket reportedly fired from Thailand hit a Cambodian market at the base of the temple’s stairway, burning it to the ground.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said he does not foresee today’s celebration as a potential flashpoint between Cambodia and Thai forces, adding that much has changed in the nearly 12 months since the beginning of the standoff.
“In my point of view…it will not cause any problems,” he said of the festivities scheduled for today in Phnom Penh and elsewhere.
He pointed toward the two recent meetings between Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as evidence of Thailand’s growing willingness to work with its neighbor.
“This is a signal for diffusing the tension,” he said.
Officials with the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)