Thursday, June 26, 2008

Preah Vihear inflames nationalist sentiments

With his coalition still intact, the Thai prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, appeared set to prevail over Thailand’s emboldened political opposition in a confidence vote this week. But accusations that his five-month-old government bowed to Cambodia in a territorial dispute have weakened the government and stoked nationalist sentiment.
The NY Times article quoted above then seeks to explain how the old temple of Preah Vihear came to take center stage in the stand-off:

The opposition is divided between the Democrat Party in Parliament and a group called the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which has organized street protests for the past month. But they have jelled over the issue of Preah Vihear, a 900-year-old Khmer temple that sits on a ridge along the Thai-Cambodian border.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia but the surrounding land — and perhaps most important, access to the temple — have remained in dispute. The temple can be reached from the Thai side relatively easily; on the Cambodian side it is accessible only by bad roads and footpaths scaling the mountain.

In an apparent attempt to help solve the dispute, Mr. Samak’s government endorsed Cambodia’s application to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, a classification made by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization.

But the opposition accused the government of having ulterior motives in backing Cambodia’s application, claiming that Mr. Thaksin, who is also a billionaire tycoon, will benefit from business deals in Cambodia. Negotiations on the Preah Vihear issue were led on the Thai side by Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, who is a former lawyer for Mr. Thaksin.

I am concerned about how the Cambodians will react -- down the road -- if the Thais continue to turn the fate of the ancient Khmer temple into a political football. It's all such a shame, especially as the PAD protesters just seem to have been looking for any old grievance to stoke outrage against the elected Thaksin-allied government.

Thai investment in Cambodia is substantial -- not just in terms of the deals Thaksin has planned. On this account, I would be surprised if the Thai business community let this matter get any more out of hand.

The unpredictable element here is the Cambodians. The potential for Cambodians to display explosive animosity towards a neighbor that claims ownership over one of their prized temples cannot be understated. What would be Thailand's response if Cambodians over-react to all this domestic Thai political posturing? After all, only a few years ago Cambodians burned Thailand's embassy to the ground because a Thai pop star claimed Angkor Wat truly belonged to Thailand!

The Cambodian position is understandable, even if the behavior is over-the-top. Recall that it was the Thais who sacked Angkor in 1431, destroying Khmer civilization.

Concerning the Preah Vihear dispute, Bangkok Pundit has examined the Thai political manuevering in the context of the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling -- "the temple of Preah Vihear is situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia" -- and the recent UNESCO application that set off the present controversy here (more here and here). Bangkok Pundit, noting how some Cambodian bloggers have responded to the controversy, blogged: "Both the opposition in Thailand and the opposition in Cambodia are claiming that the same thing that they are both disadvantaged although neither side have yet to advance a legal argument on how exactly how either side is disadvantaged. So far it is nationalist rhetoric on both sides." That sounds about right.

Maps: Khmerization, which has others. Note that Sean Pengse, director of the Paris-based Cambodia Border Committee, told VOA that "putting only Preah Vihear temple and not the surrounding areas is against the decision of international court in the Hague." Pengse cites agreements made in 1904, 1907, 1962, and 1991. (h/t BP)

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