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Back From the Brink: Ending the Conflict at Preah Vihear
By Rennie Silva

A COUNTRY once devastated and long divided by the Indochina wars of the 20th century, Cambodia today stands among the prime beneficiaries of Southeast Asia's transformation from pock-marked geopolitical chessboard to a region largely free from inter-state armed conflict. Yet an ongoing standoff between Cambodia and Thailand at Preah Vihear has turned their shared border into a flashpoint, pitting the forces of two ASEAN members against each other and placing an ancient temple in their crossfire.


Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, sent military and civilian observers to the area after the organization on Feb. 22 pledged to "assist and support the parties in respecting their commitment to avoid further armed clashes between them, by observing and

reporting accurately, , as well as impartially on complaints of violations and submitting its findings to each party through Indonesia." It is unclear how long the observers will remain in place. And while it is a welcome respite, it is not a permanent solution. Nor need it be. A sober assessment suggests that Cambodia and Thailand could, if they chose, take measures to secure the temple, prevent the further erosion of their bilateral relations, and avoid undermining ASEAN's historic role in the region.


CAMBODIA'S LACK OF INTEREST

Built 1,000 years ago on windswept cliffs atop the Dangrek mountain range that straddles the Cambodian-Thai border, Preah Vihear is a four-hectare temple complex. Long isolated in recent years by civil war, rendered inaccessible by land mines and cut off by the last of the Khmer Rouge that controlled the area in the wake of their disastrous reign over the country, the temple was cast into the spotlight in 2008 when it was recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Immediately following UNESCO's announcement, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen moved to propagate Preah Vihear as a potent symbol of national pride, asserting Cambodian ownership of the temple and reinvigorating deep-seated historical animosities between Cambodia and its Thai neighbor.


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Yet while the Cambodian government has adroitly used Preah Vihear to galvanize the support of its public, it has also obfuscated the origins of the recent conflict. At its heart lies the issue of accessibility: for decades, Thailand has offered visitors the sole entry point to the temple complex. Lack of interest in the temple on the part of the Cambodian government, even after the return of peace and stability to Cambodia in the mid-1990s, allowed Thailand to establish and maintain a near-monopoly on access to the area through building the necessary roads and infrastructure. By the middle of the last decade, thousands of tourists were visiting the temple via Thailand on a daily basis, making them an extension of Thai territory in all but name. Rather than arouse concern or provoke action, this de facto annexation of the Preah Vihear temple was met with silence on the part of Cambodian government that lasted almost until the day the temple were recognized by UNESCO. Thailand continues today to provide the only viable overland route to Preah Vihear.

 

THAILAND'S TERRITORIAL AMBITIONS

 

Cambodia's renewed interest in the temple complex following UNESCO's 2008 recognition of the temple places the Thai presence there in a precarious position: by contesting Cambodian ownership, Thailand is encroaching on Cambodia's internationally-recognized borders that date back to 1962. That year, an international court hearing in which former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued on Cambodia's behalf resulted in a ruling that determined Preah Vihear to lie inside Cambodia. Many other Angkor-era temple sites, once part of a Cambodian empire that stretched from modern-day Vietnam to Burma, are today scattered across Thailand, Laos and Vietnam; they include Phnom Rung, a near-replica of Preah Vihear, built on a hilltop now

geographically deep inside Thailand. Yet based on the 1962 ruling, Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia.


The refusal of some Thais to recognize the legitimacy of Cambodia's claim has heightened a deep mistrust of Thailand among many Cambodians that is rooted in a long history of troubled relations. Thailand occupied Cambodia's northwestern province of Battambang, including its second-largest city, from 1941 to 1946; in 2003, reports of remarks by a Thai actress asserting Thai ownership of Angkor Wat spurred anti-Thai riots during which the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was looted and burned. Anger toward Thailand was further stoked amid the most recent skirmishes at Preah Vihear when nationalist "yellow-shirt" leader Sondhi Limthongkul urged the Thai military to seize Angkor Wat as a bargaining chip with which to trade for Preah Vihear.


FORCES AND FACTS ON THE GROUND

Even as Cambodia's government reminds the world that its temple is in Thailand's crosshairs, the dramatic raising of Preah Vihear among Cambodians from forgotten ruins to nationalist icon and political pawn must be tempered by a realistic assessment of the military capabilities on both sides of the disputed border. In the wake of the most recent violence, with Cambodia reporting part of the temple to have collapsed under Thai artillery fire, the severe power imbalance between the Cambodian and Thai forces is clear. A faltering state plagued by endemic corruption has led to the neglect of the Cambodian Armed Forces and put them at a decisive disadvantage at Preah Vihear; its regular forces are often equipped with little more than well-worn uniforms, flip-flops, and aged Chinese and Soviet AK-47s. While luxury SUVs belonging to Cambodian army generals line Phnom Penh's streets, the government has periodically solicited the country's figurehead king and its largely rural public for the funds necessary to feed and sustain soldiers stationed at the remote mountaintop. In the absence of medical supplies or facilities, malaria has remained a persistent threat.


In stark contrast, Thai commandos have appeared at Preah Vihear in polished boots, wearing creased uniforms and brandishing American-issue M-16s with grenade launchers. Critically, they are backed by an air force with offensive capabilities (something that Cambodia lacks and that would be vital to winning a battle on mountainous terrain). Strengthened ties with China have led to modest improvements to Cambodian capabilities, however they are dwarfed by those of Thailand, which has benefited significantly from decades of US-Thai military-to-military cooperation. It is precisely this disparity that leads many to speculate that Cambodia, despite its saber-rattling, would be unlikely to provoke a wider war.


While force of arms was once a common means of resolving conflicts between Southeast Asian states, the concern aroused in the region by Preah Vihear reflects the significant shifts that have taken place since the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was first forged by ASEAN leaders in 1976. Mirroring the goals set out at the founding of ASEAN in 1961, the treaty sought "mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations, non-interference in the internal affairs of one another, settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means, and renunciation of the threat or use of force."


Thailand entered into the treaty at its formation; Cambodia became a signatory 19 years later in 1995. And yet, in defiance of their mutual commitment, fighting at Preah Vihear has erupted between Cambodia and Thailand on three separate occasions since 2008. Five were killed during the most recent skirmishes in February, and thousands of people on both sides of the border have been displaced.

 

A NEGOTIATED SOLUTION

Though it was the recognition of Preah Vihear by UNESCO as a site of world heritage that began the current standoff between Cambodia and Thailand, sustained international intervention is not essential to end it. What is necessary is acceptance from both governments of the historical context and present realities of their situation.


A negotiated settlement could be reached through the willingness of Thailand to acknowledge Cambodia's long-term ownership of the temple, as set out in the 1962 international court ruling and reinforced by UNESCO's 2008 decision. Cambodia in turn must accept that, in the short term at least, the primary access point to the temple will remain in Thailand. Due to the time and resources required for Cambodia to establish access to Preah Vihear and develop the broader region in which the temple sits, it would be in the interest of both governments to accept an interval during which visitors could continue to enjoy open access to Preah Vihear via Thailand. Revenue generated through tourism could be shared equitably and used to partially finance the needed investments in Cambodia's infrastructure, while Cambodian police and tourist authorities could replace Thai military forces. Such a sustained presence must be included in any agreement in order to ensure the temple is adequately protected; Cambodia's most expansive ruins, located close to Preah Vihear, were badly disfigured and in some areas reduced to rubble after looters detonated dynamite to uncover gold deposits believed to be buried under the unguarded temples.


Given the forces presently deployed to Preah Vihear and the emphasis on the temple as a symbol of national pride, the steps outlined here will not necessarily be easy; present conditions on the ground in both Bangkok and Phnom Penh suggest a shared reluctance on the part of leaders to look beyond their respective short-term political interests to constructively engage with one another. The Yellow Shirts of the People's Alliance for Democracy have opportunistically pressured the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as he seeks to juggle the issue of Preah Vihear with the domestic instability that has rocked Thailand since the coup that ousted former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. It remains to be seen whether Abhisit can resist their extremist demands and respond instead with a strategy to allow cooler heads to prevail. In Cambodia, Hun Sen has leveraged Preah Vihear both to consolidate his power in advance of 2013 elections and propel his son, recently promoted Major-General Hun Manet, into the spotlight as leader of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and potential future successor to his father.

 

However, while fanning the flames of conflict at Preah Vihear advances near-sighted political agendas on both sides of the disputed border, the potentially disastrous consequences of prolonged conflict necessitate the opposite. The fate of the temple, already bearing the scars of battle, hangs in the balance; so too does the future of Khmer-Thai relations and the credibility of ASEAN, which has proven instrumental in fostering peace and stability in the region. Such high stakes must eventually transcend politics and bring both governments to the negotiating table. When they do, the path forward should be clear.


Rennie Silva lived in Cambodia from 2007 to 2009 as a Peace Corps volunteer, during which time he visited the Preah Vihear region on several occasions. He is currently a graduate student in international security and economic policy at the University of Maryland, where he is writing his master's thesis on the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.



Back to Issue
    The bitter struggle over a 1,000-year-old Khmer temple on the Cambodia-Thailand border could be solved without continuing bloodshed through a common-sense solution, writes Rennie Silva, who lived in Cambodia from 2007 to 2009 as a Peace Corps volunteer. He is now writing his master’s thesis at the University of Maryland on the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.
    Published: March 2011 (Vol.6 No.1)
    About the author

    Rennie Silva is currently a graduate student in international security and economic policy at the University of Maryland.

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