While the world’s attention is focused on the uprisings in the Middle East, a dormant border dispute is flaring up again on the Thai-Cambodian border around the historic Preah Vihear Temple complex. Built on a 1700 ft. (500 m.) cliff by Khmer emperors in the 11th and 12th centuries, Preah Vihear has a deep cultural significance for Cambodians. The land below the temple is the subject of the current dispute, which began after thousands of Phnom Penh residents marched through the streets to celebrate the temple’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 8, 2008.
In a 1962 ruling, the International Court of Justice awarded ownership of the temple to Cambodia in a 9-3 vote, based on a 1907 map that showed the site clearly within Cambodia’s borders. Thailand has abided by the ruling until recently, but is now claiming that Cambodia is trying to steal land along the border.
This claim is absolutely ludicrous for several reasons. First of all, Cambodia has no interest whatsoever in another protracted violent conflict with anybody. The kingdom is still trying to recover from 30 years of Pol Pot’s madness and the ensuing guerilla conflict in the ’80s and ’90s that cost the lives of more than 2.5 million and left the country in ruins. If there is any country that desires to live in peace, it is Cambodia.
Secondly, if “border creep” is indeed an issue then, according to foreign aid officials who worked on the Thai border in the ’80s, it is actually Thailand that has been the offender. No one is accusing Thailand of orchestrating a campaign, but it was Thai farmers, probably just trying to make a living, who took advantage of the turmoil in Cambodia to plant a few extra hectares in disputed border areas.
Finally, Cambodia was the first to call on the UN National Security Council to send in peacekeepers, having no need or desire to see a dispute over what amounts to just 1.8 sq. miles (4.6 sq. km) of scrubland ignite into a costly armed conflict.
With the recent escalation and exchange of fire in early February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called out the Thai government, stating that, "Thailand created this war. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit must assume responsibility for the war." Calling the conflict "a real war… not a clash,” he dispatched Cambodian troops to protect the local population and the 900 year-old temple.
Since then, Cambodian TV stations have been running fundraisers with donations large and small pouring in from all quarters to support the troops. Sporadic skirmishes have resulted a 11 deaths with dozens more injured and hundreds of locals fleeing the region on both sides of the border.
The danger for Cambodia if this dispute were to become “hot” is that relations with Thailand, an important regional economic partner, would be ruined for years, while hundreds on both sides would die needlessly. Thailand, with a population of 66 million and GDP of $312 B, may be able to afford such waste. Cambodia, with a population of 15 million and GDP of $11 B, cannot. This is why Cambodia was quick to ask the UN Security Council to create a buffer zone in the province and approached ASEAN, which avoids interfering in member states’ disputes, about mediating between the two sides.
Fortunately, ASEAN has been able to broker an agreement to send a military/civilian team to the region. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said last Tuesday that unarmed observers would be deployed on both sides of the border, adding that “this is an observer team – not a peacekeeping or peace enforcement team.
Sending observers is a first step towards defusing this conflict, however, both governments must show good faith in negotiating a more permanent solution, perhaps under the auspices of the UN.
Preah Vihear, originally dedicated to the Khmer, is a masterpiece of its architecture that could become an important tourist destination, generating incomes for people on both sides of the border. If violence continues, this important source of revenue will dry up. Let’s hope for the sake of Thais and Cambodians living in the region that the only thing destroyed is the enmity between our two countries.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Op-Eds