By Peter Janssen and Robert Carmichael
Feb 9, 2011
Bangkok/Phnom Penh - The UN Security Council might think twice before getting too involved in the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over land around an ancient temple on their border.
The confrontation, which has claimed the lives of three Thais and five Cambodians this month and forced more than 25,000 people to flee their homes, is steeped in recent history and murky domestic politics.
The conflict surrounding Preah Vihear, an 11th-century Khmer temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is a powder keg for nationalistic sentiments on both sides of the border.
Firstly, many in Thailand never accepted a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that said the temple compound belonged to Cambodia.
The French, the former colonial masters of Indochina, delineated the Thai-Cambodian border in 1904, using the watershed along the Dangrek mountain range as one of the landmarks. Although Preah Vihear is rather clearly on what is now the Thai side of the cliff, on the French-composed map, the temple was inside Cambodia.
Because Thailand had never officially objected to the French map, it lost Preah Vihear to Cambodia.
'Preah Vihear was not a big deal to Thailand 100 years ago,' Thai historian Charvit Kasetsin said. 'They just wanted to have peace with France and preserve Siam's independence.'
Expansionism became more popular in modern-day Thailand under its later military dictators.
'I think we are still suffering from the ultra-nationalist sentiments which have been propagated by Thai governments since World War II,' Charvit said.
The Preah Vihear issue has been taken up by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a Thai nationalist movement that has vowed to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for his poor handling of the border.
'We want a new government that will protect our territory and our motherland,' PAD spokesman Panthep Wongpuaphan said.
The PAD helped exacerbate the recent flare-up when six of its members were arrested for illegally crossing into Cambodian territory in December. Two remain imprisoned.
Abhisit's PAD problems are somewhat mirrored in Cambodia by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party's hounding of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The party accused Hun Sen of neglecting land controversies in the border demarcation process with Vietnam while highlighting the confrontation with Thailand.
'He is trying to avoid the border issue with Vietnam,' said Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a Phnom Penh-based non-governmental organization.
'If you look at the score - what he is doing on the Thai border and what the political opposition is doing on the Vietnamese border - it is one-all,' he said.
Hun Sen might also be under pressure to speed up the Thai-Cambodian border conflict for budgetary reasons.
With local elections set for next year and a general election in 2012, the economy could take a hit if the fighting drags on.
'When the smoke clears and we go into the number crunching, the military will ask for more cash, and the people will want to see how [Hun Sen] is faring with the budget,' Chhaya Hang said.
Preah Vihear has long been a thorn in the side of the two nations. The sovereignty spat first flared up more than five decades ago, prompting a suspension of diplomatic ties in 1958.
Both governments agreed to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice. While the temple went to Cambodia, the court's ruling stopped short of defining where the common border lies.
The current confrontation is not over the temple itself but a 4.6-square-kilometre plot nearby, which is claimed by both sides. Both Cambodian and Thai troops are in the disputed zone.
Bangkok blames UNESCO for escalating the conflict in 2008 when it designated Preah Vihear a world heritage site despite Thai objections.
Several borders skirmishes followed. The latest broke out Friday and lasted four days.
It remained to be seen whether the United Nations would move swiftly to help Hun Sen, who has asked it to intervene in the Preah Vihear squabble.
He has long been abrasive with the world body, even as recently as November when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in Phnom Penh.
'He hasn't got many political friends at the UN,' Chhaya Hang said, 'but he's certainly trying to get the body to act.'