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CAMBODIA/THAILAND: Temple Row May Lead to Wider Conflict

Andrew Nette

PHNOM PENH, Oct 18 2008 (IPS) - This week’s gun battle between Thai and Cambodian soldiers over the disputed Preah Vihear temple raises the possibility of wider conflict between the two South-east Asian nations.

The 12th century Preah Vihear temple sits atop a cliff on the disputed Thai/Cambodian border.  Credit: Cambodian Gov't

The 12th century Preah Vihear temple sits atop a cliff on the disputed Thai/Cambodian border. Credit: Cambodian Gov't

Civil society groups and political observers in Phnom Penh are worried about the impact on the fragile peace building gains made by Cambodia since its civil war ended in the late nineties.

“You have hundreds of heavily armed soldiers face to face with each other, trained to kill,” said Chea Vannath, a prominent political and social commentator in Phnom Penh.

“Of course it is going to be a volatile situation and things like this will continue to happen and could get worse if immediate action is not taken to defuse things.”

“It is a very worrying situation,’’ said Theary Seng, executive director of the Centre for Social Development.

“We are trying to build on the limited peace that we have achieved after decades of conflict and now it feels like we are going backwards.”

The clash, which resulted in the deaths of two Cambodian soldiers and saw several others on both sides wounded, was the most serious incident yet in the four-month standoff over the ancient temple.

It followed an ultimatum by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier in the week to Thai troops to withdraw from an area near the temple known as Veal Intry, or “Eagle Field”, or face the possibility of war.

Media photographs of Cambodian civilians fleeing the fighting with their possessions were reminiscent of images during the country’s decade and a half civil war.

The standoff originated in July after Preah Vihear was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This angered Thai nationalists who argue the site belongs to Thailand and who accused their political leadership of caving in by agreeing to the listing.

On Jul. 15, Cambodian guards briefly detained three Thai nationalist protesters who crossed into the area and refused to leave. Cambodia claims the Thais sent in troops to retrieve their nationals and both sides have been building up their forces since.

The question now is whether Cambodian and Thailand will knuckle down and find a genuine solution before the standoff spirals out of control again.

Although both sides have contained outbreaks of hostilities, successive rounds of meetings have failed to reach a permanent solution.

Instead, the standoff has mutated into a much more serious and multifaceted problem.

Legally, the temple has belonged to Cambodia since a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962.

The ICJ’s 1962 ruling provoked violent protests in Thailand, which has never accepted the verdict and questioned the validity of the map used by Cambodian to claim ownership of the temple, the same map document used by UNECSO as the basis for its recent decision.

Thailand successfully blocked Cambodia’s efforts to list Preah Vihear in 2006 and 2007 on the grounds that a 4.6 square km piece of land in the temple compound is still subject to border dispute. It is this land, ot covered by the recent ruling, that is at the centre of the standoff.

The fact that both sides are working off fundamentally different maps of the contested area hugely complicates matters.

“Put simply, the version of events you get depends on whose map you are using,” said one diplomatic observer in Phnom Penh.

Another factor hampering efforts to find a resolution is Thailand’s ongoing political upheaval.

“The negotiation process has been fragmented, there is no continuity on who is involved on the Thai side because of the political turmoil in Thailand,” said Vannath.

While most observers agree that groups in Thailand are using the temple as a proxy to further their domestic agendas some believe powerful interests in Cambodia also have a stake in the conflict.

“There are powerful politicians on both sides who are using the dispute to further their interests, including some in the ruling party here [in Cambodia] who figure it looks good to be seen standing up to a larger nation,” said Theary Seng

The temple standoff has played into the dissatisfaction felt by many Khmers about their unequal relationship with larger neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, both of whom have encroached on Cambodia’s borders since the 14th century.

While Thailand and Cambodia have significant trade and investment links and much in common culturally, Khmers also view Thailand as having been quick to take advantage of their country’s troubles.

“The fighting can either stop the process of finding a resolution or speed it up,” maintained Vannath. “What they should do is have at least some distance, some zone of comfort so the soldiers do not have to directly see each other.”

“We need to get the U.N. involved,” argued Theary Seng. “ASEAN is toothless and we will always be the weaker party to the Thais in that forum, we need to go elsewhere for a resolution.”

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said this week Cambodia would brief the UN about the situation but would not yet request intervention.

“The Cambodian government are on record as saying they reserve their right to go to international arbitration but that at this time they are committed to bi-lateral negotiations with Thailand,” said the diplomatic observer.

“I can see why they want to sort it out between themselves. They have already been to the courts once in 1962 and it solved nothing.”

Cambodian civil society is alarmed about the deeper implications of the conflict.

Media reports claim growing numbers of young Cambodian men in the country’s north and northwest are quitting their studies to enlist for military service.

The tenor of public debate about the temple conflict is also becoming increasingly strident and nationalist.

“I am a little concerned when I hear people, especially young people, taking a very nationalistic line in forums like talk radio, talking about the other side as the enemy,” said Vannath.

“It’s easy to get into war. It’s harder to establish peace. Cambodia knows this better than a lot of countries and should act accordingly.”

“The wider impact is serious,” agreed Seng Theary. “It feeds on discrimination and historic rivalries between the two countries which actually have very similar cultures.”

The standoff has also sparked concerns of a repeat of the anti-Thai violence in early 2003, when mobs burned down the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh and a number of Thai-owned businesses.

This was in response to a Cambodian newspaper article falsely alleging a prominent Thai actress had stated that Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most important national symbol, belonged to Thailand.

Responsibility for the riots was never been established. Hun Sen attributed them to ‘incompetence’. Some say economic interests, keen to rebalance the relationship with Thailand, fuelled them but that they got out of control.

Thai authorities have warned their citizens to avoid travel to Cambodia and the embassy in Phnom Penh stated this week it had prepared evacuation plans.

“There will be no repeat of 2003,” maintained Vannath. “The government has learnt its lesson and they will be careful to ensure things do not get out of hand.”

Cambodia police have been stationed outside the embassy for the duration of the dispute and their numbers have been increased over the last two weeks.

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