Cambodian Temple in Clutches of Thai Nationalism

The nations discussing the Preah Vihear temple at the UN Security Council yesterday were dealing with a lodestone of Cambo­dian and Thai nationalism that has fallen in and out of Cambodia’s control at least twice since the 18th century.

The temple and its environs, whipsawed by competing claims, have for nearly 70 years become a fixture of domestic politics in Thai­land, a source of conflict that shows no signs of abating.

A rallying point in times of Thai disharmony, the temple as a result has become a beacon of Cambo­dian national identity.

In 1941, Thailand had taken ad­vantage of its alliance with Japan during World War II to seize Cambo­dia’s western provinces, only to have to give them back in 1946.

Since then, the Thai government has repeatedly attempted to extend its control over Preah Vihear.

Thailand “often used the issue to legitimize its domestic policy,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Stu­dies in Singapore, wrote in an e-mail.

When the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled in June 1962 that Preah Vihear was on Cambodian territory, Thailand’s Sarit government claimed “Thailand was robbed of its territory by both Cambodia and The Hague, using this issue to eclipse its own despotic rule,” he said. (After leading a 1957 military coup, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat had decreed martial law in Thailand in 1958.)

“Today, Thai leaders follow in this same pattern, but this time it’s the PAD.”

The royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy and its “yellow-shirt” protesters who helped put the Democrat Party in power in Thailand are now turning against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, which has distanced itself from them in order to burnish its image, he said.

One of the PAD’s tactics is portraying Preah Vihear as Thailand’s lost territory to fuel nationalist sentiment, Mr Pavin said.

“Although the PAD is a small group, its tactic is powerful,” he said. “Those who have never supported the PAD came out because they believe Thailand is about to lose Thai territory yet again to Cambodia.”

In school, Thai students hardly hear about the Cambodia’s Angkorian empire—during which the Preah Vihear temple was built between the ninth to the 12th centuries—the emphasis being placed on the alleged theft of Thai land by France and Cambodia, he said.

Part of Cambodia’s west that had officially belonged to Siam, as Thailand was then called, since 1794, Preah Vihear and the western provinces were returned to Cambodia in 1907 through a treaty between France and Siam.

Obliged in 1946 to give back that same Cambodian territory it had rushed to seize during World War II, Thailand nevertheless left soldiers at Preah Vihear in spite of numerous requests for their removal from France and from Cambodia after independence in 1953.

Thailand’s failure to comply would lead the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk to ask for UN intervention in 1958 and to submit Preah Vihear’s case to the International Court of Justice in 1959, obtaining a ruling in its favor three years later.

In Cambodia, it is especially in the late 1950s and the 1960s that Preah Vihear became a symbol of national pride as Prince Sihanouk kept explaining the case in his speeches and in the media, historian Ros Chantrabot said.

“This awakened nationalism in all Cambodians and somehow created national unity against Thai policies,” he said.

A similar phenomenon happened in 2008, when deadly fighting erupted at Preah Vihear and Thai political groups, blaming the Thai Cabinet for supporting Cambodia’s bid to inscribe the temple as the World Heritage Site, forced the resignation of Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama.

A wave of pride and national solidarity took Phnom Penh by storm: Hundreds of Cambodians across political party lines headed for the temple; television stations organized fundraising campaigns for Cambodian soldiers posted at the temples and the families of those killed in clashes with Thai soldiers; and Hun Sen’s wife Bun Rany led a Buddhist prayer ceremony at the site.

Commenting on bilateral “negotiations” with Thailand, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan noted, “We use the word ‘discussion’ because it’s our land.”

And when the World Heritage Committee announced in July 2008 that Preah Vihear was included on its list, celebrations erupted throughout Phnom Penh.

On its website, Unesco’s World Heritage Center describes Preah Vihear as being “exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation.”

Designed in Angkorian times not only as a monastery but as a pilgrimage destination, Preah Vihear, or sacred temple, was built on an escarpment in the Dangrek mountains more than 650 meters above sea level.

It is known in Thailand as Khao Phra Viharn. On a visit to the temple in 1955, John Black of the British Royal Geographical Society noted that all villagers for kilometers around the temple on the Thai side of the border were of Khmer origin.

That he was very much taken by the temple becomes obvious in his description of Preah Vihear published in 1956. He calls its location “the most remarkable site for a temple in the whole of the Indo-Chinese peninsula,” exhibiting the “outstanding work of craftsmen whose enterprise approaches perfection.”

Although the temple and its inscriptions were studied by several French researchers before and after independence, the restoration plan to be launched as part of its listing as a World Heritage Site will be the first attempt made to safeguard it.

In the meantime, the temple was damaged during battles at Preah Vihear last week. In a statement on Saturday, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, reiterated its earlier request for Unesco intervention. Unesco has already agreed to send a team to assess the damage.

The report also listed the human cost of the hostilities from Feb 4 to 7—seven dead including two civilians, 30 soldiers and one civilian injured, 2,956 families displaced—and asked for international assistance to end this “real war.

In its letter to the UN Security Council on Feb 7, Thailand contended that Cambodian soldiers triggered the series of assaults by firing on a Thai military post and on a Thai village without provocation on Feb 4, adding that the situation would be resolved through bilateral channels.

Asked why the Thai government is opposed to UN intervention, Mr Pavin, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said: “It will complicate the matter, at the end of the day. The conflict is driven by domestic conflict: Is Thailand ready to allow the UN to also interfere in its domestic affairs? Thailand is on the disadvantageous side since we are not the legal owner of the temple.

“This has become a political issue thus requiring a political solution. Diplomatic means are no longer useful,” he added.

For Mr Chantrabot, the only possible recourse is the one taken by Cambodia: UN and Unesco arbitration. Since recent events have shown that Thailand does not recognize the International Court of Justice’s verdict or the 1972 World Heritage Convention, to which Thailand is a party, international intervention, he said, “is the only thing that might somehow put an end to Thai troops’ invasion of Khmer territory.”

Historian David Chandler also is convinced that international arbitration will be needed to solve the conflict. But for that to work, two major hurdles will have to be overcome, he said.

“It seems to me that the International Court decision of 1962 needs to be accepted by both sides before we can make any progress. The yellow-shirt movement also needs to become a weaker force in Thai politics.”

And these are no small issues to resolve, as historian Raoul Marc Jennar explained.

“Regarding Thailand, here is a fairly classic case: the use of an international issue that appeals to nationalism in a society deeply in crisis, in which development benefits are very unequally divided, ruling elites removed from the vast majority of the population, an army whose political and economic role exceeds what is acceptable in a democracy, […] a country that has known numerous military coups and whose current government’s democratic legitimacy is narrow due to the ban on some political parties on the eve of the last election,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“Nationalism is often the recourse of those who don’t manage to surmount problems during a serious national crisis,” said Mr Jennar, who has worked as a government adviser.

If the Preah Vihear conflict is to be resolved, international intervention is essential since Asean seems unable to serve as a regional mediator, Mr Jennar said, adding that calls for restraint were “not enough.”

“One cannot wait for the conflict to grow before taking action. Law must get the upper hand rather than weapons. The Security Council must face its responsibilities,” he said.

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