Cambodia, Thailand Prepare for Fight Over Temple
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI - What started as a decision by Cambodia, with Thailand's blessing, to register the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has grown into a potential military conflict.
"This is a grave situation for Thailand's interests with potential for outbreak of hostilities," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.
The dispute goes back to 1904, when the border between the two countries was established by French authorities. The century-old decision is a model of how old colonial ghosts continue to haunt Southeast Asian politics.
As of press time, Thai and Cambodian troops were facing off at the border area near the Hindu temple, with ministerial talks between the two nations scheduled for July 28. However, diplomats will have a hard time sorting out the issue because of the twisted political causes for the recent spat.
In Thailand, it is mainly a domestic issue by the anti-Thaksin lobby, said Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based researcher with the think tank Asia Pacific Media Services. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in a September 2006 military coup for alleged corruption, but has returned to Thailand and entered politics as a quiet cohort to the new administration.
In June, a joint communique was signed by then-Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple. When news of the communique was released, anti-government opposition groups began massive protests. The government responded by sending troops to the area, and Cambodia responded.
Lintner said there are allegations that Noppadon, who also was Thaksin's former legal adviser, agreed to the Cambodian proposal to list the temple with UNESCO "to curry favors with the Cambodian government because Thaksin is interested in investing in a casino in Cambodia."
Noppadon was appointed foreign minister in February 2007 under the new government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, but after the June agreement, protests in Cambodia erupted and Noppadon resigned.
The Thai Constitutional Court ruled July 8 that the agreement violated the charter that requires parliamentary approval for such agreements.
"The opposition here is playing on nationalist sentiments to stir up public opinion against Samak's government" and Thaksin, who is behind the government, said Lintner.
The temple's remote location and rugged terrain make it difficult for either side to justify an armed conflict, but the area has been a center of military activity in the past with both Royal Cambodian troops, Khmer Rouge rebels and Royal Thai troops occupying the area at some point during the past 50 years.
The area's unique geography makes the temple inaccessible from the Cambodian side of the mountain.
"I have been there twice, and you don't need a Cambodian visa to cross the border because you can't go anywhere in Cambodia from there," Lintner said.
Cambodia was recognized as the rightful owner of the temple in a 1962 International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision. The decision both defined and obscured the issue, Thitinan said.
"Cambodia further requested the ICJ's adjudication over the adjacent land area, but the judges placed their jurisdiction only over the temple as per Cambodia's original case submission," he said.
Thitinan suggests Samak depolarize the controversy by "appointing an autonomous team of diplomats and relevant officials and experts who are insulated from the cut-and-thrust of Thai political crisis to mount Thailand's case."
Equally important, anti-government groups "bent on overthrowing Mr. Samak's government" must drop the issue before it spins out of control.
"If they continue to exploit this matter to bring down the government, it would play into Cambodia's advantage," he said.