Published: 1/05/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Preah Vihear is a convenient political tool that both Phnom Penh and Bangkok can use whenever they need to practise the time-honoured political tradition of misdirection.
This is true no matter who has the legal claim to it or what any court in the world says; the UN, Unesco's World Heritage Committee, Asean and Indonesian observers _ they're just window dressing. Every now and again, the conflict will be dug up to serve a political agenda, even 20 or 50 years from now.
To understand the present situation, one must first study the past. We are where we are because it's the logical step in a historical evolution. Once we've learned from the past to understand the present, then and only then may we shape the future.
Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, then a colonel, was instrumental in overthrowing the Pridi Banomyong government in 1947. Ten years later, he was the coup leader that deposed Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram, leaving deputy prime minister Thanom Kittikachorn in charge. One year later, he took out Thanom and took charge of the Kingdom.
He declared martial law, banned political parties, shut down 18 newspapers and forbade new start-ups. He did away with freedom of speech, abolished the constitution and dissolved parliament. His Revolutionary Party ruled supreme.
But how to unify the country under his rule, legitimise his authoritarian regime and gain the support of the people? Find a common love, a common enemy and spread the wealth.
Preah Vihear was a convenient political tool then as it is now. If at the time of Field Marshal Sarit's rule (1958-1963) the communist threat was not enough, the Cambodian threat was more easily swallowed. It was a familiar face.
In a teary speech, he cried: ''I guarantee the people of Thailand that I will be the first to carry the Thai flag and fly it atop Preah Vihear temple!''
His authoritative rule wasn't the problem, Preah Vihear was, and the Cambodians were the culprits - misdirection.
He decreed that the royal anthem would be played in theatres, with the audience required to stand in respect. Following blueprints drawn by the United States and the World Bank, the field marshall also went about developing the Kingdom's economy.
Any dissatisfaction with authoritative rule was subject to misdirection: Thailand had a common love, a common enemy and a growing economy.
Field Marshal Sarit died in 1963 from liver failure after amassing a personal fortune of some US$140 million.
He never flew the Thai flag atop the Preah Vihear temple. He didn't need to. It was a useful inheritance for later generations.
Back to the present day. Cambodia will have a general election in six months. According to experts, it's usually about this time that Premier Hun Sen tries to drum up nationalistic sentiments.
Heaven forbid that Hun Sen make noises about border problems with Vietnam. Vietnam made Hun Sen, and what's more, Vietnam doesn't fool around. You don't mess with Vietnam.
But over here on the other side, Thailand loves to fool around. We recognise a convenient political tool when we see one and we also have a national election coming up in three months.
To put it plainly, if the Pheu Thai Party forms a government, it would be a very undesirable outcome for the establishment. So everyone is doing their part to ensure that doesn't happen.
The Abhisit government is campaigning hard through its populist policies. The police are working hard to shut down red shirt media and arrest dissidents. The coalition partners are working hard to seduce disaffected Pheu Thai MPs.
The military is also playing its part. The high command has made a promise to the people of Thailand: There will not be a coup. They've also loudly and repeatedly said: We will protect the royal institution. Every single Thai should support both promises - because we want democracy and because we love and revere the King.
On April 19, the 11th Infantry Regiment performed a military exercise on a rainy Bangkok day. Rumours of a possible coup surfaced again.
On April 21, Thaicom satellites went down and there was a TV blackout. There were more coup rumours. Officials from various embassies rang their sources to ask what was going on.
On April 22, Thai and Cambodian troops started shooting at each other.
None of this means that there will be a military coup, but it may mean that the military would like to remind us of its role in and commitment to Thai society.
First reminder: The military has the power, the guns and tanks. Second reminder: The military will do whatever it takes to protect the royal institution against whatever it ''interprets'' as a threat. Third reminder: There is Preah Vihear, there is Cambodia, there are battles and Thailand should be united against this external foe.
The first reminder is just a fact of life for any struggling democracy. The second reminder is something we can all support, while the ''interpretation'' of what constitutes a threat or insult to or defamation of the the royal institution remains debatable.
As well, we understand that fulfilling this role also reinforces the military's status in society.
The third reminder is simply a political tool to misdirect the public from all the internal woes and strife, rousing nationalistic fervour towards a common enemy. Frankly, this can be either a positive or a negative, depending on what it achieves, although the families of those who have lost their lives and those who have lost their homes may not be able to imagine an upside.
All of this is for one purpose: The general election is coming up, and everyone needs to be reminded of the social hierarchy in Thailand.
Understand this: For half a century, the establishment protected us from the tragedies suffered by our neighbors: Vietnam, Laos and yes, Cambodia. While millions died all around us, they kept Thailand safe and united. Our nation was not torn apart, because of three things. First was our unity in our love and reverence for the King.
Second was the heavy-handed rule of the military. They took our freedom away, but also kept us safe and protected us from the fates of our neighbours. Perhaps it would have been better if things were done in a more democratic way, but history is based on facts, not ''woulda', shoulda' or coulda'''. It happened as it happened.
Third was our obedience in respecting this system.
Today, we live in a different world: A world where the threat of communism no longer exists; a world where we Thais are struggling mightily to embrace democracy; a world where the establishment is trying to hold on to its power and prestige. And, yes, a world where Preah Vihear still makes for a convenient political tool.
In the big picture, it's a struggle between the old and the new. It's a battle between traditionalism and modernism. It's the same tale of social evolution many societies have gone through before, and which many others are currently going through with their own variations. Many others will have their own stories after us.
There will eventually be a ceasefire and after this round in the Thai-Cambodian border conflict is over and done with, we might not hear about Preah Vihear again for the next 20 years. But if it ever becomes convenient, someone will surely again bang the war drum.
There are already columnists and commentators questioning if, given the border conflict, this is the right time to dissolve the House and hold a general election. This is the situation we are dealing with, and the short-term future prospects point to more of the same. But what about the long-term?
The elites, the military, the politicians and the people must solve the equation of how to build a society where the royal institution is respected and _dhupheld. A society where democratic institutions are embraced and democratic ideals practised, where the military honours its role and duty to protect the royal institution, to serve the people of Thailand and to defend the Thai democracy.
This is the future that we must shape.