Preah Vihear is an unimaginably beautiful place. It is a province, but it takes it’s name after an 11th Century Khmer Temple, which towers over the landscape on a 525-metre high mountain. The temple is stunningly well-preserved – there are still carvings of dancing Apsaras, Buddha statues and stone stair cases leading up to a perhaps even more breathtaking view over unspoiled nature.
That is utterly unimportant, though.
The temple is situated right on the border in between Thailand and Cambodia,, and the two nations have been fighting over it for almost a hundred years: As unlucky as it is, the temple itself is situated on the Khmer side of the border, while the entrance of the massive temple area is on the Thai side. None of the countries will give up their rights to the temple. In 1962 the International Court of Justice in Haague awarded the temple to Cambodia. Thailand has not recognized this. That is also not important.
This is important:
In July 2008, it received UNESCO World Heritage Status. And both nations realized the economic ramifications of that.
The decision stirred up the old conflict again and caused Cambodia and Thailand to deploy soldiers on the border. Three months later, eight soldiers had lost their lives in the temple row, without anything new being added to the dispute. A bit of murmur in the respectable governments later, everything went back to normal, just only, now with soldiers with guns at the border.
These days, the conflict is flaring up once again. Cambodia has recently presented their development plan for the temple to the World Heritage Committee and Thailand fears this plan is a decoy for occupying Thai soil, including the entrance of the temple. Therefore, Thailand has opposed the development plans and is threatening to withdraw from the UN World Heritage Committee altogether.
Now, sable rattling is a move favored by both governments, so the Thai threat was met with a diplomatic: “We will NOT approve the development plan just now, we will delay it till next year” from the Committee.
A diplomatic wise move, but there is one thing Diplomacy seems to have forgotten:
There are PEOPLE living on that border!
People whose lives were suddenly changed when both governments decided to deploy heavily armed troops right where they live. And didn’t bother to make any plans on when they might pull them back – quite the opposite in fact, supported by the UN decision of stalling the Cambodian development plan. No matter how many times the gentlemen in the fancy buildings in the capital say that no orders are given and no fighting will erupt, no matter how many different cries and resultless demands of ending the conflict, it does not change the fact that having your kids play in an area where there are also guns and soldiers is a frightening thing to deal with in your everyday life.
Furthermore: Having put the conflict on hold without resolution means that different groups with strong opinions on the subject (and those are many) now have momentum to continue antagonizing each other – like the Network of Thai Patriots, who this week demanded the government push out all Cambodian people from the disputed area.
“”The government must quickly revoke all the Thai-Cambodian agreements that put Thailand at a disadvantage, expel the Cambodians from the Thai territory and fulfil former prime minister Sarit Thanarat’s desire to retain ownership of Preah Vihear temple,” Chaiwat Sinsuwong, a leader of the movement, recently stated in the Bangkok Post.
If it was not obvious before that the people who just happen to live near the temple – something that should be very lucky for them – are in a fragile and unstable situation, it is certainly becoming more and more clear now. Who in their right mind just comes right out and say something like: “Throw them out” about a specific ethnic group that has been living somewhere for generations?
The answer is: People, who have been following this conflict for years. Someone, who has forgotten the two above mentioned things and are now only focusing on coming out of the conflict with their national pride intact. Chaiwat Sinsuwong is far from the only person, who fit that description.
With no solution whatsoever in sight, these harsh demands and strange perspectives on this situation are only going to increase in craziness and frequency. While they do that, the people can do little but sit at the border and hope for some sort of intervention from somewhere.
Anya Palm is a freelance journalist and Southeast Asia expert stationed in Bangkok.