Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Preah Vihear dispute

Preah Vihear - a symbol of Cambodian pride
I'm sure you will have all heard by now of the real problems we're having on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, mainly around the Preah Vihear temple area. Yesterday the posturing by both sides turned nasty and two Cambodians soldiers died during a gun-battle. I will leave the news media to report further on that situation. In the meantime, I post this article by the esteemed historian Milton Osborne, which was originally published in August, which will give you the full picture of what's happening on Cambodia's northern border.

Preah Vihear: the Thai-Cambodia temple dispute
The diplomatic and near-military crisis of 2008 between Thailand and Cambodia reflects both deep historical tensions and contemporary domestic politics, says Milton Osborne.
The sudden re-emergence of contested Cambodian and Thai claims to sovereignty over about 4 square kilometres of territory close the Angkorian-period (9th-15th centuries) temple of Preah Vihear brought the two southeast Asian countries close to armed confrontation in July-August 2008. The dispute bring into focus the difficult relations that have existed between the two neighbouring countries ever since Cambodia attained independence in 1953, as well reflecting much older historical problems between the two countries. At one level the Preah Vihear crisis - supplemented by another dispute over a much less prominent temple-site at Ta Moan Thom, well to the west of Preah Vihear - may be viewed as a classic example of contested boundaries arising from decisions taken during the colonial era, when France was able to impose its will over the then weaker state of Siam (Thailand). This interpretation - which Cambodia rejects - is worth examining. But it is at least as important to consider contemporary developments in the context of earlier historical and geopolitical factors that lie behind Cambodia's existence as a state and the views held of it by its immediate and more powerful neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. For while the governments of both Thailand and Vietnam may be hesitant to express the views held by some of their citizens, there is no doubt that in both these countries there are those who privately question Cambodia's right to exist as a truly independent state. In the case of Vietnam, a strong case may be made to argue that when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to defeat the Pol Pot regime in December 1978, it initially hoped that it would be possible to incorporate Cambodia into some form of "Indochinese Federation"; this would have included Laos, which would have been dominated by Vietnam. Such a view was a continuation of the explicit thinking of the Vietnamese Communist Party in the 1930s and into the 1960s, when the party held the view that neither Cambodia nor Laos had a right to run their own revolution.

The uncertain state

The distinguished historian David Chandler noted (in A history of Cambodia) that until the 17th century Cambodia was a "reasonably independent" state. By the 19th century it had lost this status and its internal politics were dominated by its powerful neighbours, Siam and Vietnam. Perhaps the most useful, if shorthanded, way to describe Cambodia's situation in the mid-19th century was that it was a vassal state in a tributary relationship to two suzerains, Siam and Vietnam. But of those two powerful and expanding states Siam had by the 1840s assumed the more important position. Moreover, and despite some Cambodian rulers having sought assistance from Vietnam, Siam's greater dominance also reflected the fact that the two countries shared a similar culture. It was one deeply affected by adherence to Theravada Buddhism and by surviving shared beliefs and court rituals that harked back to Hindu concepts of the state developed during the Angkorian period.

In the decades immediately before the French asserted their colonial control over Cambodia in 1863, Cambodian rulers looked to the Siamese court in Bangkok to guarantee both their position and their legitimacy. This situation is exemplified in the fact that members of the Cambodian royal family often spent long periods as hostages in the Siamese court in Bangkok. This was true of the last king to rule Cambodia before the arrival of the French and of King Norodom I before he came to the throne in 1860. At the same time Siamese officials occupied senior positions within the Cambodian rulers' courts, determining which foreign representatives they were permitted to meet. In these circumstances, and from the Siamese point of view, Cambodia's king was a person who held power at their behest. Again using European terminology, the Cambodian king was for the Siamese court the holder of a vice-regal position. This complex relationship differed sharply from the way in which Vietnamese rulers viewed Cambodia. Both in theory and in practice the Vietnamese rulers in the first half of the 19th century were ready to pursue policies which, had they succeeded, would have transformed Cambodia's status into being an integral part of the Vietnamese state governed in accordance with Vietnam's Chinese-influenced administrative practices.

The border line

The French gained control of Cambodia in 1863 and established their "protectorate" over the country - though in every way that mattered the term "protectorate" was merely a legal figleaf to hide the fact that was a French colony. At the time, Cambodia's territory did not include what are now the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap. These two important areas had fallen under Siamese control in 1794, the outcome indeed of what had been a long reduction of Cambodian control over former Angkorian territories. A contemporary reflection of this process is the fact that a substantial number of Khmer (Cambodian) speaking Thai citizens continue to live in northeastern Thailand, an area in which there are many Angkorian-period temples.

In the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, Anglo-French rivalry in mainland southeast Asia led to the adjustment and implantation of borders that remain essentially unchanged to the present day. It was in this period, for example, that the northern states of modern peninsular Malaysia were removed from Siamese to British control. In Cambodia's case, and reflecting France's greater coercive power, this mixture of mapping and absorption led to the return to Cambodian sovereignty of the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap. This process was consolidated in 1907-08 with the establishment of a Cambodian northern boundary that took in the temple of Preah Vihear, located on an escarpment 525 metres above the northern Cambodian plain. But the precise coordinates of the boundary at this point were apparently in contradiction to the principle that had been laid down when the boundary between Cambodia and Siam was being delineated: namely, that the boundary should be drawn in terms of the existing watershed.

This created a potential problem from an international legal point of view, and led to an appeal by Thailand to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague to rule on the question of which country had sovereignty over Preah Vihear. In June 1962, the court ruled that indeed Cambodia held sovereignty. But the factors which led to this decision were not based on a judgment as to whether the boundary established in 1907-08 was "fair" or that it had been drawn in relation to the location of the watershed. Rather (and to summarise very briefly), the ICJ's decision rested on the fact that over many decades the Bangkok government had not disputed the validity of the map drawn up by the French, and agreed to at the time by the Siamese authorities, that incorporated Preah Vihear into Cambodian territory. The court also accepted that Siam had recognised Cambodian sovereignty in various other ways, including through visits to the temple by senior Siamese officials who were received by members of the French administration then governing Cambodia.

Thai ambition, Cambodian fear

However, it is fair to say that legal considerations are not always at the heart of Thai thinking on relations with Cambodia. From the time of Cambodia's gaining independence in 1953 until the onset of the Cambodian civil war in 1970, relations between Thailand and Cambodia were marked by almost continuous difficulty. While there were brief periods when relations were "correct", in others diplomatic relations were suspended. Throughout these years Thai security services worked to undermine the government in Phnom Penh. This was a fact explicitly stated to me by a senior Thai official with security responsibilities, during an extended discussion of Thai-Cambodian relations in 1980. General Channa Samudvanija observed that in essence, Thai policy towards Cambodia was to support those forces within the country that opposed the existing government. The rationale behind such a policy was the Realpolitik view of seeking to weaken a neighbour with which Thailand had substantial policy differences: Thailand supported United States policies in southeast Asia and Cambodia did not. Without placing excessive weight on the continuity of Thai policy at this stage with previous historical relations with Cambodia, there is no doubt that the views Channa advanced were also in part a reflection of those relations.

In similar fashion, it would be incorrect to regard the conflict that erupted in July 2008 as a direct manifestation of the view expressed in 1980 by General Channa. For it is clear that the crisis arose in part out of domestic Thai politics - and the positions being taken both by the government led by prime minister Samak and his political opponents. The Thai opposition had sought to undermine the Samak government by criticising its readiness to support Cambodia's wish to see Preah Vihear inscribed on Unesco's world heritage list.

Nevertheless, discussion of the issue of Preah Vihear within Thailand does represent yet another instance of a readiness of some Thais, whether politicians or ordinary citizens, to adopt and advance positions that seek to undermine what they see as irrelevant and irksome Cambodian interests. The readiness of some observers to resort to describing the situation as an expression of big brother-little brother rivalry is too simple, but it would be equally wrong to dismiss this aspect of Thai and Cambodian thinking about the relationship between the two countries.

At the same time, there is no doubting that the ingrained sensitivity felt by many Cambodians in relation to their relations with both Thailand and Vietnam on occasion borders on paranoia. This was demonstrated in the events of 2003, when a Thai TV actress with a popular following in both Thailand and Cambodia was supposed to have stated that she would not perform in Cambodia until that country restored Thailand's sovereignty over the great Angkorian temple of Angkor Wat. Whether the actress, Suwanan Kongying, made such a statement or not, the publicity that surrounded her alleged remark led to serious ant-Thai rioting in Phnom Penh; the damage included the destruction of the Thai embassy and many Thai businesses (there was also a barely averted attack on the Thai ambassador). Here, again, a deeper analysis of the 2003 riots suggests that domestic Cambodian issues were involved.

The wall between us

This intimate yet conflictual history means that even the settlement of the latest dispute is no guarantee that the situation has been settled once and for all. For the wider issues associated with Preah Vihear are no nearer to being resolved. The mutual military withdrawals from the temple area have brought respite; but the memory of the febrile stand-off between Thai and Cambodian armed forces, amid ultra-nationalist rhetoric from politicians on both sides, remains fresh. The ever-present readiness of politicians in both countries to stoke the flames of nationalist animosity is reflected in the suggestion by a Cambodian official that the Phnom Penh government might build a wall that would exclude access to the temple from Thai territory - as is possible at present.

Indeed, at least for the moment diplomacy has won out over war, as two sessions of talks between the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers have helped create a marginally improved atmosphere. The fact that the new and highly regarded Thai foreign minister, Tej Bunnag, had been appointed at the direct wish of the king is also of importance. Now, however, Tej Bunnag's decision to leave his post - though unlikely to have any immediate effect on the Preah Vihear issue at a time when Bangkok is preoccupied with domestic political turmoil - may be regretted over the longer term since he was undoubtedly a calming influence in relation to Thai policies. In any event, a lengthy and continuing period of political turmoil in Thailand creates the possibility that the question of Preah Vihear may yet return to haunt Thai-Cambodian relations.
Reproduced courtesy of under a Creative Commons licence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy, let me say first that I always thank you for posting very informative writings here. I am a Khmer person. I do see what the writing by Mr. Osborne is once true base on history, however, I like to look at Cambodia in a new perspective. After all, we are all living in a modernized world. Whose to say that we should disregard historical facts. Whether it's the great Khmer civilization that preceeded all of these 100 to 200 years of the Thai occupation of Cambodia's remnant of the great Khmer empire that no doubt preceed comparable to any great power in the Old European empire. Anyway, I kind of sick and tired to hear some people seem to make the Thai perspective everything. Cambodia is not about Thailand or its history or whatever. whose to say as well that Cambodia liked to keep our great Khmer empire legacy alive, when Thailand is also doing just that to the time when they occupied Cambodia? Anyway, I like to look at Cambodia and the world as a modern state, not a vessel of anyone going back to history. I the entire world were to do just that, then, we the world wouldn't have peace, prosperity, and cooperation for that matter. I way I see Cambodia is that we Khmer people would like to look forward to the future, unlike the past generation. We, the future generation of Khmer people would like to see Cambodia becoming a developed, modern nation that be a part of the world community. Please distinguish this new approach from those of the old generation of Khmer people or leaders of the yesteryears. So, it is good to know the Khmer history or the history of the world for that matter, however, please keep in mind too that the new Khmer people generation would rather look forward to a better future for my beloved Cambodia, then to dwelve on the past pain and suffering of the dark ages. Thank you for allowing me to express myself on your blog. May God Bless Cambodia.

October 17, 2008 1:01 AM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

Thursday, October 16, 2008
The day I crashlanded near the disputed temple

THE easy way to reach the Preah Vihear temple is to drive along a perfectly paved road on the Thai side of the border, flash your passport and walk across.

15 Oct 2008
By Alex Spillius - The Telegraph (UK)

The Cambodians may not like to hear this, but the hard way is from within their country - which was awarded the disputed complex by the International Court of Justice in 1962.

The nearest town on their side of the frontier is 80 miles away. The road is still under construction to the spectacular escarpment which the temple graces.

Ten years ago, the only way up was by helicopter. I was among a group of journalists flown by the Cambodian army to meet a unit of Khmer Rouge fighters who had surrendered after using the temple as a base for 20 years.

Anxious not to miss the story, there were too many of us on board an old Russian craft - I was sitting in the aisle. The Cambodians, judging that Pol Pot's men might be thirsty after wasting their lives in a vain struggle for an agrarian utopia, loaded up the back of the chopper with at least eight crates of beer.

Trying to approach the makeshift helipad at the temple, it was clear we were too heavy to make the height. The pilot elected to crash land on an ancient stone wall. He cut the ignition, the helicopter rolled over and fortunately didn't burst into flames. We were unaware at the time that the tail had been blown off by a land mine.

Everyone survived with cuts, bruised ribs and bad backs. The British embassy man with us was airlifted out within hours by a smaller helicopter, while we were left to explore the fascinating temple grounds, and to spend the night under the stars chatting with the recently retired Khmer Rouge fighters. We got our story after all.

The border was then closed and we sat looking at that Thai road and wishing we could just walk down and hop in a cab to the nearest airport. Instead, we had to wait for another Russian flying crate to pick us up the next day.

When I revisited four years ago on holiday, landmines were still being cleared. The precious mountain has seen it share of warfare.

October 17, 2008 11:15 PM  
Anonymous GOODSTUFF said...



October 21, 2008 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im a student,working on with my assignment about 'Preah Vihear Dispute in Cambodia and Thailand Perspective'.what i would like to say is,thank you for posting your informative writing.your blog help me a lot in order to get information regarding this temple dispute.
good job,keep it working.

February 6, 2009 10:25 AM  

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