Why Thai-Cambodian temple dispute lingers

Each side has domestic reasons to prolong the conflict.

By , Correspondent

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    No deal: Thai Supreme Commander Gen. Boonsrang Niampradit (r.) and Cambodian Defense Minister Gen .Tea Banh (l.) met Monday to discuss their nations' border dispute.
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    Whose ancient temple is it? Thailand and Cambodia failed Monday to end a weeklong border dispute at Preah Vihear. Both sides’ troops are stationed nearby.
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Senior security officials from Thailand and Cambodia failed Monday to defuse a border dispute centered on a 10th-century temple that has seen hundreds of troops mobilized on both sides and claims by Cambodia of incursions by Thai soldiers.

After a week of saber-rattling over Preah Vihear, which UNESCO recently designated as a World Heritage Site for Cambodia, Thai analysts and Western diplomats say there is a risk that tempers could flare. Neither side wants to be seen backing down, since parties on both sides are using the dispute to further domestic political goals, especially in Thailand.

"Nobody wants to see this dispute escalate," says a Thai military officer, who requested anonymity. "We are doing our best not to let anything happen.... Cambodia understands that the problem arises from domestic political problems in Thailand."

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The risk of violence, though, remains slight as the two militaries have a close working relationship. No shots have been fired, and the only injuries came when Thai nationalists clashed last week with local Thai villagers opposed to their campaign against Cambodia's claim to the temple.

Domestic politics fuel conflict

Still, with opposition politicians in both countries playing nationalism cards, the row may prove hard to douse. Five years ago, a rumor that a Thai actress had spoken of taking back Angkor Wat, another temple, sparked anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh. The Thai Embassy was torched and Thai nationals in Cambodia had to be evacuated by military aircraft.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is campaigning ahead of national elections on Sunday, and opponents who lag far behind in opinion polls have attacked his handling of the row, as well as his lauding of the temple's new status.

A more proximate cause, though, lies in Bangkok. Here, opponents of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who have led months of street protests and lawsuits against his government, have used the issue to accuse it of surrendering sovereignty.

"It doesn't seem too complicated to fix [the dispute]. But Thai politics [are] so polarized that it's being used to accuse the government of selling out the country. Sentiment is high on the Thai side," says Gothom Arya, a peace advocate and chairman of the National Economics and Social Advisory Council, a government think-tank.

At a summit in Singapore, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which groups Thailand, Cambodia, and eight others in the region, called for "utmost restraint" on the border. Cambodia said Sunday that it had written to the UN Security Council about the alleged Thai incursions, but insisted it wasn't trying to involve the UN in bilateral talks, the Associated Press reported.

A history of border disputes

Seemingly minor territorial disputes have long plagued Southeast Asia, whose colonial-era borders overwrote divisions of bygone kingdoms. Singapore and Malaysia have scrapped for years over claims to tiny islands. Thailand fought a brief border war with Laos in the 1980s. For their part, Cambodians are suspicious of Vietnamese designs on its territory, a legacy of both centuries-old rivalry and a period of occupation after Vietnam's 1979 ouster of the genocidal Khmer Rouge government.

Thai nationalists are still smarting over France's delineation of their border with Cambodia, a former French colony, which had ruled Thailand during the heyday of the Angkor period, before shrinking in size. In 1962, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia, but the status of the surrounding Thai-administered area wasn't determined.

Overlapping interests

Thai nationalists fear that the temple's designation will weaken Thailand's hand, though UNESCO has said that its decision has no bearing on overlapping land claims.

Earlier this month, Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled that the government was wrong when it signed a joint communiqué with Cambodia on the issue without consulting parliament. Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama later resigned.

Behind the rhetoric is a grinding war of attrition between Mr. Samak and his enemies, whose ongoing street protests are a repeat of events in 2006 that paralyzed Thailand, before former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup. Samak is an ally of Mr. Thaksin, who is barred from politics but continues to loom over public life here.

Critics allege that Thaksin is cutting business deals in Cambodia and that his friends in government are smoothing his path. "This is a very sensitive issue on both sides of the border. The [Thai] government should have informed the people from the beginning. The suspicion is that there are dealings under the table," says Kasit Piromya, a former Thai ambassador to Washington and opposition supporter.

For decades, Preah Vihear was off the map as visitors steered clear of war-torn Cambodia. But the surrender of Khmer Rouge troops in the 1990s paved a tourism boom in Cambodia focused on Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex that symbolizes the country's ancient glories. Cambodia hopes to repeat the trick with Preah Vihear.

Until this month, day trippers from Thailand could visit the temple, which sits atop a rocky escarpment that is much harder to ascend from Cambodia. Both countries benefited from this arrangement by levying fees on visitors, but Cambodia eventually plans to channel tourists from its side of the border, capitalizing on its UNESCO designation.

For now, there are no tourists, only soldiers hunkered down around the ruined temple.

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