Caught in the Thailand-Cambodia crossfire: Preah Vihear temple

In the two years since Preah Vihear temple was designated a World Heritage Site, repeated firefights across the Thailand-Cambodia border have taken a heavy toll on the ancient spiritual site.

Heng Sinith/AP
A Cambodian Buddhist monk walks toward the Cambodia's 11th century Hindu Preah Vihear temple, about 152 miles north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday, Feb. 8.

All was quiet on the Thailand-Cambodia front Tuesday, for the first day since fighting erupted five days ago along their disputed border near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple.

Crossfire has killed at least five Cambodians and two Thais and injured dozens more soldiers and civilians since skirmishes broke out Friday. Each side blames the other for instigating the fight.

Yet another victim is the 1,000-year-old temple itself, which has withstood repeated shelling over the past 2-1/2 years since the temple was recognized as a World Heritage Site under Cambodian jurisdiction, joining the ranks of The Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu in Peru. It was among the most contentious heritage list applications ever, according to Giovanni Boccardi, UNESCO’s chief of unit for East Asia and the Pacific.

"Because of the border issue, I believe that we can rank it among the most difficult,” he told The Cambodia Daily in July 2008. “The question was not simply to demonstrate its value but to understand the implications of its inscription for management and ensure that the parties concerned would be ready to cooperate for its protection.”

More than two years later, it appears that the depth of animosity between Thailand and Cambodia was not fully understood, with politics fueling deadly firefights and damaging the temple. UNESCO today said that it plans to send a mission to the temple to assess the latest damage.

World Heritage recognition fuels passions

Its precarious location complicates the issue. Resting on the edge of a near half-mile-high cliff, one side of the rectangular temple looks out over a vast Cambodian plain – yet the temple itself is virtually inaccessible from Cambodia. Meanwhile, a paved road from Thailand leads up to the other side of the temple.

Despite the International Court of Justice ruling in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia (with former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson arguing on behalf of Phnom Penh), Thailand has never fully relinquished its claims. Called Prasat Phra Viharn in Thailand and Prasat Preah Vihear in Cambodia, the temple has even reeled Google Maps into the territorial dispute.

It was Cambodia’s successful bid in July 2008 to designate the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site that ignited tensions, with the first Thai and Cambodian soldiers killed in crossfire soon after. Thailand claims sovereignty over the 1.6-square-mile patch of surrounding land.

While UNSECO urged Thailand and Cambodia to jointly manage the site, the temple seems to have fallen into further disrepair. Firefights in October 2008 and April 2009 damaged more than 200 places around the temple, reported The Phnom Penh Post, with some holes up to 10 centimeters wide and two centimeters deep. Recent fighting only added to that toll.

From the border area, Seth Mydans of The New York Times reports today that “after the engagement last weekend, the portion of the temple closest to Thailand showed the marks of the fighting, with chips and chunks cut out of a column and of a wall of the fourth gopura, or entrance building, along the temple’s causeway. A trail of blood through a carved stone doorway traced the last steps of a Cambodian soldier who was killed.”

The Phnom Penh Post reports that “felled trees, small craters and blackened remnants of fires told a story of fierce fighting around the temple, which sustained damage from grenades fired from over the border.”

Thai politics fans flames

Politics and nationalism have fueled the conflict since 2008. Both Thailand's “red shirt” and "yellow shirt" protesters have accused the prime minister at different times of ceding land around the temple to Cambodia.

The border flare-up came three days after a Cambodian court convicted two Thai nationals of espionage and unlawful entry, handing them lengthy prison terms for crossing the border into Cambodia in December. Also stoking political posturing, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called for an early election this year.

"The conflict is being driven largely by Thai domestic politics," argues Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia editor for Asia Times Online. "Because Abhisit did not give the order to open fire, some see the armed exchanges and immediate breakdown of a ceasefire declared on Saturday as yet another indication that he lacks command control over the military. The hostilities and protests come at a time some believe Thailand's top military brass seek a national security-related pretense to stall Abhisit's early election plan."

A precarious border, a superstitious Army

Along with politics, yet another problem is Thailand’s resistance to outside mediation. Cambodia’s repeated requests for the United Nations to intervene have been met with firm rejections by Thailand, which insists that bilateral talks are the best way to resolve the crisis, as The Christian Science Monitor reported Monday.

In addition to physical damage, the ongoing fighting has also "caused immense spiritual harm" to the temple in the eyes of Cambodians, as The Cambodia Daily has reported in April 2009, when a sculpture of a nine-headed mythical naga serpent, seen as a guardian spirit of the temple, was damaged by shrapnel.

Perhaps indicative of cultural roadblocks to preservation, troops actually undid some of the physical restoration efforts in order to repair the spiritual damage. Soldiers said the sculpture was not hurt because of the shrapnel; rather, a cable tied around the naga's neck to keep it from falling had prevented its guardian spirit from protecting the temple.

"The naga was tied too tight and could not move, that is why it was shot," a Cambodian soldier guarding the stone sculpture told the English-language newspaper.

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