ASEAN unity is again under strain as Cambodian and Thai troops keep up their animus over an 11th-century temple astride their common border. Ownership of the Preah Vihear Hindu temple had been determined in Cambodia’s favor by the International Court of Justice in a 9-3 vote half a century ago. Why the border squabble should have persisted to this day tells vividly how the emotive weight of history and contested interpretations of maps and borders can burden future generations. Cambodians are not only unwelcoming of Thais in their country on account of the temple issue, but are also distrustful of the Vietnamese because of the 1978 invasion and subsequent occupation of their country, ironically to rid Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge.
The meaning of ASEAN accommodation in all this seems overlooked by the principals to the dispute. It should not be, if the grouping’s international standing, which has grown, is not to be harmed. Unity of purpose matters when ASEAN deals as a bloc with powerful governments, supranational institutions and other groupings.
The origins of Preah Vihear go back to the days of the Khmer and Siam kingdoms. The World Court decision should have settled the matter. But in one of those instances where complex legal adjudications can sow the seeds of future trouble, the court left vague the status of the temple’s adjacent territory of 4.6 sq km. As the Cambodians see it, Thailand is saying Cambodia owns the temple but not the land on which it stands. How’s that for storing up an eternity of bad blood?
What is more, Preah Vihear is not just a spiritual wellspring for both peoples, but it can also be a tourist bonanza, like its famous cousin Angkor Wat. But natural access to the temple in the jungle-bound clifftop location is from the Thai side. That figures.
This is an issue essentially of border demarcation along the entire jungled frontier. The two governments’ joint border commission has had meetings since 2000 to mark the common border. This is the panel which can bring an end to the dispute, if the governments wish it. But Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjejiva is beholden to the “yellow shirt” royalists, who insist the temple be returned. He described the border skirmishes as being in defense of Thai sovereignty. That was good politics, but unhelpful in the search for a solution. He also said ASEAN intercession was “unnecessary”. His Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen has requested U.N. Security Council intervention. It can only counsel restraint.
The answer is there at home ― in the humdrum deliberations of the border commission, not in flag waving.