Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Global Dispatch: Temple Politics on the Thai-Cambodia Border

via CAAI

The fighting may have ceased on the Thai-Cambodian border but tensions remain high.

By James Burke
Epoch Times Staff Created: Mar 7, 2011

BANGKOK—Being interested in history, and also keen on open spaces, one of my favorite places in Bangkok is a historical park situated on the outskirts of the city.

Ancient Siam is a sprawling 320-hectare park with accurate recreations (some to scale and some not) of over a hundred ancient and historical Thai structures. It’s clean, quiet, tastefully done and roomy—pretty much the opposite of Bangkok.

Among Ancient Siam’s structures is a downscaled version of the Hindu temple known as Preah Vihear, which was completed in the 11th century by the Khmer people.

The temple remake has been erected on a reconstructed hill over 50 meters (164 feet) high while the real Preah Vihear is situated on a 500-meter plus escarpment on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Over the past several years the real temple has been the focal point of a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. The first military clash between the two neighbors over the land surrounding Preah Vihear occurred in 2008—the same year the temple was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Further fighting broke out in April 2009, and the most recent clash was last month, which resulted in at least eight deaths and thousands being displaced. The temple was also damaged in the latest round of fighting. Both sides blame the other for shooting first.

While the clashes ceased on Feb. 15, news reports indicate each side continues to reinforce its position, and at the government level, there is little evidence of any real effort to negotiate a way through the crisis.

As for the reasons why there is fighting over what is less than 4.6 square kilometers of territory around the temple, observers are saying it has more to do with Thai politics than anything else.

A few days after visiting Ancient Siam, I attended a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand (FCCT) where two prominent historians agreed with the above sentiments.

Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that the border issue “has turned from being a tedious technical thing, into a political thing because of Thai domestic politics.”
Back at Ancient Siam, I was busy chasing my 3-year-old son around the base of the replica temple and this time I didn’t notice the information boards, which I had glanced at during my previous visits to the park. Life is a blur when you have a toddler. All I remember reading on the boards was about a 1962 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to grant the temple to Cambodia.

Nearly 50 years later, the ICJ findings continue to irk nationalistic elements in Thai society who adhere to the ideology that parts of Cambodia, such as Preah Vihear, really belong to them.

The most intense example of Thai nationalist sentiment—the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) also known as the yellow shirts—has called on the government to send in the Thai military against Cambodia and take back “lost” Thai territory. It has also called on its former ally, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down for what it says has been his mishandling of the border dispute.

The PAD is the urban middle-class group that powered the bloodless coup against billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and that two years later occupied Bangkok’s two airports to hamstring a pro-Thaksin government.

It is also supposed to be the archenemy of the pro-Thaksin, anti-government red shirts that last year took to the streets of Bangkok in a failed bid to force Prime Minister Abhisit to call an early election. The red-shirt demonstrations degenerated into street fighting and more than 90 people were killed.

Meanwhile the rumor mills were busy in Bangkok last month about the possibility of another coup.

Currently the biggest fear for the Thai establishment, according to historian Chris Baker who also spoke at the FCCT, is the possibility of another pro-Thaksin party being voted into power in national elections, which are expected by midyear.

Baker said that the saber rattling over Preah Vihear is perhaps the old trick of stirring up nationalism, which could help swing the election in favor of the Abhisit government. He also added that there are groups in the army and in the Thai business community that simply don’t want an election, now or never.

“So perhaps they need a crisis. And so perhaps the only circumstances in which the dream of a ‘national government’ might be acceptable is in a state of war,” said Baker.

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