Temple tension

Print edition : March 11, 2011

The ownership of the medieval Temple of Preah Vihear is at the heart of the border skirmishes.

In Singapore

A BOY RECEIVES treatment, as his mother holds a serum bottle, at a camp at Ta Keung village south of the temple, where many Cambodians have taken refuge following the clashes.-HENG SINITH/AP

THE sporadic exchanges of fire on the border between Thailand and Cambodia in early February, in the general vicinity of a Cambodian world heritage site, have escalated dramatically the traditional tensions between the two neighbours.

The clashes, which tapered off on February 8, lasted several days, and unofficial accounts on both sides claimed that between five and eight persons had died. Yet, the Thai and Cambodian authorities sought to keep the spotlight on the status of the medieval Temple of Preah Vihear and their respective nationalistic assertions of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

However, such concerns were not addressed in any direct talks immediately after fighting flared up on the border. Ironically or otherwise, the exchange of fire began shortly after Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong had held talks in the normal course in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on February 4. As a result of such a surprise, the imbroglio first turned into a wider regional issue in South-East Asia and then into a matter of global interest at the United Nations.

The new tensions over the temple, cast a shadow over the internal cohesion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has often prided itself on being a collective force for stability in this sub-region of East Asia. While Thailand is a founder-member of ASEAN, Cambodia is one of the later entrants and belongs to the less-developed category within the 10-member organisation. Cambodia does receive economic aid from Thailand, which emphasised that it had not suspended its commitments in this regard.

The association had hardly begun to heave a sigh of relief that Myanmar had finally elected a civilian head of state on February 4, when the Thai-Cambodian clashes commenced. The grouping, now headed by Indonesia, felt confident about shifting its attention from Myanmar to the Thai-Cambodian crisis, especially when the U.N. Security Council was preparing to deliberate on the imbroglio.

A CAMBODIAN SOLDIER at the 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear temple, whose ownership both Cambodia and Thailand claim-HENG SINITH/AP

The basic issue of the temple itself had been eclipsed by the escalation of external interest on the crisis. The medieval temple was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962. But the real poser is not whether the site, undoubtedly of interest to both the Cambodians and the Thais, is of Hindu-Buddhist vintage or of purely Buddhist origin, although some observers like to cast the standoff in these terms.

Strikingly more relevant to the hostilities was the fact that just a few years ago a U.N.-sponsored organisation had declared the temple a World Heritage Site. Buoyed by that, Cambodia had begun efforts to turn the site into a major tourist attraction. Of direct relevance to the hostilities was a temple management plan Phnom Penh had submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) some time ago. As of February 4, Thailand was in the process of making representations to UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee to refrain from considering the temple management plan pending a settlement of the border dispute.

The most easily accessible path to the temple passes through Thailand, which portrays the site as a contentious one pending a settlement of the border dispute. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been emphatic on two counts. First, the World Heritage Committee should not proceed with moves that could render the temple's final status as a global site a fait accompli in favour of Cambodia. Implicit in this is Thailand's discomfort over the fact that the temple was already awarded to Cambodia by the World Court.

Abhisit's second and more important discourse centres on the current tensions, which, according to him, can be traced to Cambodia's practice of stationing military forces at the temple. Such a practice must end entirely, he said on February 8. Rejecting the Thai version on this score, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry said the same day that there have never been and there will never be Cambodian soldiers at the Temple of Preah Vihear. The temple has always been a place for worship and tourism, Cambodia asserted.

On the Thai military's charge that Cambodia used the temple as a heavy-arms base to target Thai soldiers operating at a lower altitude, Cambodia said only policemen armed with light weapons guarded the place of worship.

Advancing two other collateral arguments, Abhisit said Cambodia's perceived militarisation of the temple is a clear violation of the objective that influenced a U.N.-sponsored body to endorse Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site. Addressing the Thai National Security Council in Bangkok, he accused Phnom Penh of internationalising the conflict over the temple.

IN BANGKOK, OUTSIDE Government House, anti-government protesters rally under the national flag demanding tough action from the government on the temple issue.-SAKCHAI LALIT/AP

Responding to the suggestions from Thailand for talks, a Cambodian spokesman remarked, on February 9, that the issue is currently in the hands of the United Nations Security Council. As soon as clashes broke out in early February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Thailand of launching a full-scale armed aggression against Cambodia and sought the Security Council's intervention.

In a letter to it, released on February 7, Hun Sen said: This fresh onslaught by Thai armed forces has resulted in more human casualties [than in any previous clash] and damage to the temple of Preah Vihear as well as other properties. In a public speech in Phnom Penh, he described the situation on the border with Thailand as a small war or at least a big skirmish.

Disputing Hun Sen's version, Abhisit said in Bangkok on February 7 that the current fighting was meant only to counter the attack launched by Cambodia. Thailand was simply defending its sovereignty, he said. Chipping in, the Thai defence authorities maintained that the temple did not suffer any damage in their retaliatory artillery fire. However, Abhisit did emphasise approvingly that the Thai military had raised the national flag in the disputed area. Undoubtedly, this aspect did cause Cambodia much concern.

The flurry of official comments in both countries indicated that the flare-up near the temple flowed from and fuelled their respective nationalistic sentiments. In Thailand, Abhisit has been faced with one crisis after another for over a year now. Thus, when word spread in early February that Cambodia was seeking to legitimise its hold over the temple by submitting plans for its management to the World Heritage Committee, Abhisit found himself in a fresh round of potential crisis at home. Another subtext to the clashes was Phnom Penh's arrest and prosecution of several Thai nationals, including a representative of Abhisit's political party, on the charge of trespass onto Cambodian territory in the vicinity of the temple. Charges of espionage were hurled, too, and the Cambodian authorities produced videograph evidence as well. All this rankled in the minds of many Thais, especially the yellow-shirt group of nationalists. The group cast aspersions on Abhisit's ability to lead Thailand in the face of provocations from Cambodia and demanded his resignation. Significantly, this group had played a pivotal role in Abhisit's ascension to power in what many Thais and external observers saw as a controversial process.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen had, for long, sought to harness or at least appropriate the nationalist agenda to reinforce his political base. Conscious of Cambodia's lack of military firepower compared with Thailand's, he had no option but to turn to the Security Council. For Abhisit, Thailand's status as an ally of the United States outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and his own domestic political compulsions dictated the option of talks with Cambodia rather than a diktat from the Security Council. In a comment on the issue, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did, of course, take care to urge both sides to end violence, exercise restraint and find a lasting solution through the established mechanisms and procedures. In a parallel development, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa held talks with Cambodian and Thai leaders to try and defuse the tensions under ASEAN auspices.

Indonesia was also invited by the U.N. to try and help. This invitation, according to Jakarta, was a concrete proof of the international support for Indonesia's efforts, specifically in its capacity as the Chair of ASEAN, in resolving the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. Noting that a multi-track approach would be adopted to resolve the differences, an Indonesian spokesperson said the meeting at the Security Council should not be interpreted as a failure of other processes at work, including Jakarta's ASEAN-oriented initiative.

Indonesia's initiative is the first wherein the Chair of ASEAN takes steps to assist in resolving conflicts between members of the association. The initiative is also in line with ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which states that each member-country has the right to provide assistance or support [for efforts] to resolve a dispute or conflict between members in a peaceful manner, said the spokesperson.

With the latest crisis having gained far wider international attention than any other intra-ASEAN dispute in recent years, the two countries are under intense pressure to reach a truce.

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