Sunday, 26 October 2008
Preah Vihear - A Shared Heritage
A child in an old Khmer Rouge sala looks out fearfully
I can’t stop thinking about the long running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the temple of Khao Phra Viharn. Called Preah Vihear in Khmer, this fine Khmer style temple sits on top of a cliff in Cambodia just across the border from Thailand’s Si Saket, not far from where I now live. The volatile state of domestic politics in both countries has recently caused relations to deteriorate badly and the Cambodians have closed the temple to visitors from Thailand. The issue has become a political football, the focus of an entirely avoidable crisis.
The current tension flared up over Cambodia’s application to UNESCO to have the temple listed as a World Heritage Site, which was duly granted on July 15. With Thai and Cambodian troops occupying disputed land below the temple it only needed one hot-headed soldier for fighting to break out. Cross-border trade between the two countries has been badly affected and it could be years before the temple is again open to access from Thailand.
The conflict perhaps now highlights a positive point that is easily missed. Until recently cooperation by the two countries over access to the temple has been little short of exemplary and could easily be continued. Thailand was forced to accept the 1962 decision of the International Court of Justice that the temple fell within Cambodia and realized that its best interest lay in working with and not against Cambodia.
When the Khmer Rouge were first out the area in 1998 and essential mine clearance done, agreements were then reached to allow visitors from Thailand into the temple without any passport formalities whatsoever. It was a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere and for all practical purposes the border became invisible.
As the ancient Khmer empire included much of Thailand, the many fine temples that remain are part of a shared heritage. People on both sides of an artificial divide should thus have ready access to Khao Phra Viharn. Rather than inflaming ultra-nationalist passions, they should now demand that their governments again cooperate in the open border policy that has served so well.
Listing as a World Heritage Site should be seen as an opportunity for the two countries to work together for their mutual benefit, though if the Thais do not co-operate in this, then Cambodia will go it alone. Talk is of Cambodia building a new road to the foot of the cliff and of private interests building a cable car up to the temple. There are wider issues too as all 800 kilometres of the border still needs demarcation, a process that has been delayed by the threat of land mines. The border that divides the territorial sea also needs precise definition. With substantial energy resources to be discovered there, the implications for the two countries are considerable.
Meanwhile the world looks on, aghast that local domestic politics could so unnecessarily foment an international incident. It’s not hard though to see a link with past turmoil in Indo-China. Observers may be dismayed at the current dispute but the countries of South East Asia are not solely to blame for the tensions that still set them apart.
(This article was first published in DATELINE, (second quarter 2008), the journal of the FCCT, The Foreign Correspondants' Club of Thailand. You don't have to be any sort of correspondant to join the FCCT. I am a country member for a very small subscription and enjoy the excellent menu and private atmosphere of the club premises close to the Skytrain and especially the many remarkable visiting speakers and similar events that are a regular feature of the club.)