Temple As Symbol: Cambodia and Thailand Clash to Divert Attention from Internal Issues

by by Emma Whitford

illustration by by Charis Loke

A Hindu temple to Shiva—Preah Vihear to Cambodians and Khao Phra Viharn to Thais—overlooks a valley in the Dangrek mountain range along the long-disputed border between Cambodia and Thailand. A succession of Khmer Rulers built the temple in the first half of the 11th century—a time when Cambodia’s borders extended into much of the region that is now Thailand. The temple is currently occupied by Cambodian troops. It is a focal point in a nationalist tug-of-war that has been going since the early 1900s. On February 4, Thai and Cambodian troops exchanged fire along the border, each side blaming the other for the outbreak of violence. A. Gaffar Peang-Meth of the Pacific Daily News reflects on the relationship between Cambodia and Thailand in an article from February 23, saying the two countries are “condemned by destiny to live side by side, sharing much history, similar culture and Buddhist beliefs, and both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), yet generally unable to get along.” The violence this month comes only two years after a brief outbreak of fighting in the same region, also over border-establishment issues.
The focus of the current dispute is the 1.8 square miles of border territory that surround the temple. Possession of the temple is viewed as a symbolic triumph by the governments of both nations—proof of the possessor’s strength and influence in East Asia. The Pacific Daily News cites micro-level catalysts for the February violence. On January 25, in response to Thai protests, the Cambodian defense minister removed a stone signboard from the disputed region that read, ‘Here is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on 15 July 2008.’ However, the sign was replaced with a more blunt message: “Here is Cambodia.” Thailand threatened to attack if the second tablet wasn’t removed. This second assertion of Cambodian sovereignty was also taken down, only to be replaced later by a Cambodian flag flying over the temple. Violence erupted shortly thereafter.
After two days of fighting, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry reported 3,000 civilian evacuees from the region, while deputy governor of Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, Sar Thavy, reported that 1,000 families had been evacuated on the Cambodian side. Casualty counts on either side of the border don’t match up, but a recent report from Alert Net counts 11 deaths, including both soldiers and civilians. On both sides, Red Cross officials report that thousands of evacuees have been displaced to makeshift shelters and villages farther from the border. Food and water have been in short supply for families crammed into pagodas and school compounds.

In 1953, Cambodia gained independence from France. However, Cambodia held on to French Colonial maps as a reference for determining its national borders. According to the French maps, Preah Vihear Temple lies well within the Cambodian border. That same year the Thai army hoisted a flag over the temple. Thailand had just established a police post in the Dangrek Mountains in an effort to strengthen its border defenses. To justify their country’s actions, Thai officials cited a 1904 Franco-Thai convention that placed the national boundary along the cliff edge on which the temple stands, ensuring that the temple was in Thai territory.
The International Court of Justice assessed the border conflict in 1962 and ruled that the temple was rightly the property of Cambodia—a ruling that Thailand accepted begrudgingly. For years neither country put effort into the upkeep of the region, as a war in Cambodia between the Khmer Rouge and neighboring Vietnam made the region uninhabitable. Since 1992, on-and-off occupation of the temple by Khmer Rouge forces has prevented public access to the temple for long stretches of time. In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) accepted a Cambodian proposal to make the temple a World Heritage Site. Thai nationalists immediately protested, seeing the temple as Thai property. As a result, both governments reinforced troops along their borders. In periods of safety for tourists, access to the temple is primarily via Thailand. Visitors are welcomed in through Khao Phra Viharn National Park—a protected national area abutting the temple and contested border.
Kho Tararith is a Cambodian poet, and currently a visiting fellow with the International Writers Project at Brown University. Tararith explains the landscape of conflict: “The division [between the two countries] cuts through a valley. Thai side of the valley has a good street. You pay the Thai, easy to get to temple from the Thai side. During the civil war, the temple was controlled by the Khmer Rouge, not safe to visit.” The civil war, fought between the Khmer Rouge and the government forces in Cambodia, only lasted until 1975, but Cambodia remains tense and conflicted to this day. Tararith explains, “We need peace inside Cambodia and also with bordering countries.”

Sitting in his office on the third floor of the Watson Institute for International Studies, Tararith opens—a blog maintained by the Khmer Intelligence of Cambodia, a dissident group promoting free speech in Cambodia. Due to state censorship laws, the blog can’t be accessed within Cambodia. The bloggers who maintain the site are part of an “Outside Party, [that] critiques everything, especially with the corruption,” explains Tararith. A post from February 18 is entitled “Why Now for Thai Cambodia Row?” Originally published in the Diplomat, a current affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region established in 2002, the post presents the border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand not as a dispute between two countries over contested land, but as an effort on the part of both countries to boost nationalist fervor.
Tararith agrees: “I think the issue is not really for the temple and for the land [surrounding it], because Thai want to move the issue from Bangkok to [the temple region].” The issue he refers to is the conflict in Thailand between the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The PAD members are known as Yellow Shirts, and are primarily Bangkok’s royalist upper and middle-class. They are staunch nationalists, unsatisfied with Prime Minister Vejjajiva’s weak response to the border dispute. On February 5 the PAD stated publicly that the Prime Minister should step down, citing government corruption and his inability to protect Thailand’s borders and sovereignty. Hundreds of Thai nationalists have been protesting near government offices for weeks, demanding that the government get tough with Cambodia.
Wanni Anderson is a Thai Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Brown University. She’s currently working on a comparative study of biracial Americans of Thai and American parents, who divide their time between the United States and Bangkok. As Professor Anderson explained in an e-mail to the Independent, “Religion is not part of the conflict, since both Thailand and Cambodia are predominantly Buddhist.” She describes a history of conflict that is primarily political. Professor Anderson also stresses that the Thai people are not a homogenous front: “There is a nationalist group demonstrating. But not all Thai people agree with all the demands of this group. I don’t agree with this group’s demand to send Cambodian refugees who have settled around there back to Cambodia, unless they want to themselves.” She refers to some Thais’ insistence that any Cambodians settled in the disputed region are trespassing.
The Diplomat assesses the Cambodian government’s nationalist objective: “[T]he real aim of both Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is to strengthen their respective leadership credentials.” Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the Pacific Daily News, “For Hun Sen, the border dispute with Cambodia’s historical neighbor to the West is a blessing to draw domestic attention away from discontent [within Cambodia].” Hun Sen has been building up armed forces in recent years, increasing his power and encroaching on free speech. In 2010, Cambodia imported dozens of Soviet-designed tanks from China and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party is using its control of the Internet to prevent the Khmer Intelligence bloggers from getting out their message about governmental corruption and free speech violations.
On February 19, the Bangkok Post, which bills itself as the “World’s Window to Thailand,” assessed Cambodia’s desire to bring a third party, ASEAN, into the border dispute as a means to come to a settlement and end the violence: “Cambodia is […] aware that Thailand does not favor outsiders getting involved in the border row—which is perhaps why Phnom Penh is proposing a peace deal witness by other ASEAN member countries.” It also speculated that Thailand was unlikely to agree to such a meeting. “[N]o one knows the problems on the border better than those involved in the dispute: itself and Cambodia.”
However, despite Thailand’s initial unwillingness to negotiate with third party mediation, the foreign ministers of all ten ASEAN member nations met on February 22 to negotiate with representatives of Thailand and Cambodia. The decision reached was the establishment of an ‘unofficial ceasefire.’ Unarmed military and civilian observers from Indonesia, a neutral third party, will be dispatched to both sides of the disputed border, with permission to report any violence back to ASEAN. ASEAN chairman and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa stated afterwards, “And so there will be further meeting between the two sides to try to really solidify the present situation […] As long as the guns are silent and the artillery is not making noises, I will be quite happy.”
While the ceasefire is a breakthrough, Cambodia and Thailand are just beginning the process of finding a permanent solution. Their lofty goal is to resolve a century’s worth of tension between countries that are dealing with their own internal issues. Tararith explains, “Seeing both sides [of this conflict] is good. I am Cambodian and I love my country, just like the Thais love theirs.”
National love runs deep in both Cambodia and Thailand, though neither country unanimously supports the violent border conflict. The question that remains is how this love will be manifested: through violent attempts to acquire symbols of national power, or through domestic efforts to stamp out government corruption and enforce free speech rights—approaches that have quelled national pride in the past.

EMMA WHITFORD B’12 wonders why love is a battlefield.