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Why Thai-Cambodian temple dispute lingers

Each side has domestic reasons to prolong the conflict.

(Page 2 of 2)

A history of border disputes

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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.