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The Preah Vihar issue damages not only the temple but also mutual understanding

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Feb 07, 2011

BANGKOK (eTN) - This is a sad story about a beautiful Khmer temple from the 11th century perched on a plateau, which dominates a valley. With Angkor temples complex, Wat Pho in Southern Laos, as well as Phimai and Phnom Rung in Thailand, the temple belongs to the most beautiful sites from the once-mighty Khmer empire. But instead of remaining a symbol of peace and serenity, Preah Vihar temple is, for more than century, an object of dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

The quarrel dates back exactly from 1904, when both Siam and the French colonial authorities ruling Cambodia formed a joint commission to demarcate their mutual border. By then, Preah Vihar went to the French with the Siamese government acknowledging the new border. It was later again contested by Thailand until a ruling from the International Court of Justice determined in 1962 that the temple was effectively on Cambodian territory. However, a 4.2 square kilometer piece of land surrounding the temple belongs to Thailand, restricting, in part, access to the temple.

The registration of Preah Vihar on the UNESCO World Heritage List has not helped. Yje temple has turned into a nationalist issue. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used the Preah Vihar temple as a means to stir up national fervor. In Thailand, the Abhisit Vejjajiva government is prisoner of conservative nationalist movements, which are actively supported by the “Yellow Shirts” political group. Despite speeches announcing to look for a solution, both governments will not bow and retrocede an inch of their claimed sovereignty over the temple location and its surroundings.

Since the UNESCO inclusion in 2008, incidents and casualties involving both Cambodian and Thai armies have multiplied. Thailand has vowed to block a UNESCO plan to restore the temple, as it would eventually encroach into the infamous 4.2 square kilometers of Thai territory. Cambodia has been prompt to raise Cambodian flags everywhere including on Thailand’s side. Military clashes have followed with the most violent happening over the last four days. According to the Bangkok Post, casualties between both armies claimed already the life of at least 5 Cambodian soldiers, while on Sunday night, 15 Thai soldiers and two villagers were wounded.

Not only lives are lost over the temple issue. Cambodia announced on Monday that a wing of the sacred, unique architectural complex has been destroyed by Thai artillery shooting. Another damaging consequence is the permanent suspicion among Cambodians and Thais. Boh people never liked each other, but the Preah Vihar issue is adding fuel to the flames. Mistrust takes now its toll on behavior on both sides of the border. Talking to Cambodian artist Em Riem about a visit to Bangkok on his way to a show in Paris, he replied that he feared being arrested if leaving the airport’s international perimeter. And some Thai students admitted to feeling angry and insecure, if they would go to Cambodia. It will be a hard task to build up a sense of community among Southeast Asians, as is wanted by ASEAN officials.

The Preah Vihar issue damages not only the temple but also mutual understanding
No destruction for this copy of Preah Vihar temple exposed during the ATF in Phnom Penh / Photo: LC

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