Monday, 19 May 2008

Don't make preah vihear a political football

The Nation
May 19, 2008

Competing claims to area around temple must not devolve into nationalistic one-upmanshipFunny things happen during election time and Cambodia is no exception in this regard. Vietnam used to be on the receiving end of vitriol from Cambodian politicians (those on the royalist side of the house) looking to score quick political points. But with overlapping claims to Preah Vihear Temple currently the centre of attention, there is a growing concern that Thailand will replace Vietnam as the preferred target for verbal attacks.

The two countries took their dispute over the temple to the International Court of Justice in 1962. Thailand lost as the court ruled that the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia.
Thailand accepted the ruling with a heavy heart. But the point of contention that has yet to be resolved concerns the 4.6 square-kilometre area around the temple.

Cambodia last year put the Preah Vihear Temple forward as a potential Unesco world heritage site. The UN body will decide on its status in July, which is about the same time that Cambodians will go to the polls. What has been eating Thailand about the proposal is that it includes the 4.6 square-kilometre area around the temple.

Both sides comfort themselves by saying that Unesco's acceptance has no bearing on national sovereignty. But in reality, Thai policy-makers, especially the military, which oversees the disputed areas, think an unwanted precedent would be set if Unesco accepts the proposed boundaries.

In political terms, it would be another feather in Cambodia's cap in its effort to claim the entire disputed area.

Given the fact this is an election year in Cambodia, it would be damaging for any politician to back away from this. They can't be seen as giving in to Thailand or anybody else for that matter.

Moreover, the fact that Thailand is experiencing political turmoil doesn't help.

But regardless of the political atmosphere in the two countries, this dispute between Thailand and Cambodia is still an important issue. After all it's about national sovereignty, a human-invented notion that boxes citizens inside political borders. Modern nation states demand loyalty from their citizens and unquestioning respect for these man-made political boundaries.

Problems surface when these boundaries overlap with those of neighbouring countries. Nations have gone to war and friends have turned into foes because of it.

Fortunately for Thailand and Cambodia, there is no lingering mistrust between the two countries, so there should be plenty of political will from both sides. But what is needed is a demonstration of sincerity from both sides to address this dispute in the spirit of friendship.

At the moment, all kinds of proposals are being floated, but so far Phnom Penh has yet to show any sign that it favours one over another - if it is even interested at all. Any sign of willingness could be translated as the country softening its sovereign claim to the disputed 4.6 square kilometres. Both countries could, for a start, begin to look for ways to demilitarise the areas, as this would send a positive signal to all sides that the two countries are sincere in looking for a peaceful solution to the problem.

Moreover, the two sides need to shelve nationalism for now and put the interests of the Hindu temple first. After all, this was an important historical site for local people centuries before there was such a thing as the International Court of Justice, or Thailand and Cambodia for that matter.

There are a lot of hang-ups from many Thais who still remember the day when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cambodia. It doesn't help anybody if we are still clinging to the bitter past.

Most importantly, we need to de-link Preah Vihear from politics on both sides. Unless this is done, there will be no peace for the temple.

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