Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Cambodian View of Preah Vihear

When I was publisher and editor in chief of the Phnom Penh Post I was once sued by then Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, accused of spreading disinformation and trying to create political instability. Over the years, several Cambodian government officials even accused me and my newspaper of attempting to “destroy the nation.”

To say the least, I’ve never been called a spin doctor for the Cambodian government. But on the issue of the current border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding the Preah Vihear temple I’m as angry as all Cambodians are at what we perceive as a Thai-initiated conflict of grossly unjust proportions.

We are not alone. Since this issue flared up two years ago, I have not met one Asian or Western diplomat, one foreign aid worker or one expatriate businessman in Phnom Penh who disagrees. Even a few Thai friends have sheepishly expressed support for the Cambodian side on this spat.

The nagging question that perplexes us all is, why is Thailand trying to export its domestic political problems and dump them on poor Cambodia? The sentiment here is that if the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts want to fight it out, do so somewhere in Thailand, but don’t use Cambodia as a scapegoat.

The view from Cambodia is simple: The issue of sovereignty over the temple was decided back in 1962 when the case was submitted to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. If Thailand didn’t want to abide by the court’s ruling then why did it agree to submit the case in the first place? And why are they groaning now and firing artillery shells at the temple almost 50 years later?

Moreover, when Thailand says: Well, we controlled the temple in the 1800s and before, the Khmers have a simpler reply: Yeah, but we built it! We started construction in the early 9th century, modified and improved it for 250 years and then continued to pray there and celebrate our gods for another three centuries until you guys stole it after you sacked and looted our capital at Angkor Wat three times between 1352 and 1431. Thank you very much. End of story.

Cambodia has no interest whatsoever in another protracted violent conflict with anybody. The kingdom is still trying to recover from 30 years of civil war, Pol Pot madness and the ensuing guerilla conflict in the 1980s and 1990s that cost the lives of over 2.5 million Cambodians and left the country in ruins. Every dollar spent on the military conflict is a dollar lost for building desperately needed roads, schools and hospitals.

The Thai accusation that Cambodia has a secret plot to steal Thai land along the border is also seen as ludicrous.

Everybody knows that since 1970, Cambodia has been too consumed with domestic strife to take even one meter of land from any of its neighbors. In fact, foreign aid officials who worked on the Thai border in the 1980s will readily admit that border creep worked in reverse. It was Thai farmers living in peace — and I’m not accusing the Thai government of some orchestrated campaign here — who took the opportunity to plant a few extra hectares in disputed border areas while Cambodia was in complete disarray.

If there is one thing that is clear, it is that the entire border needs to be systematically surveyed and demarcated, step by step, once and for all.

As for the disputed 4.5 square kilometers just north of the temple, why not consider this: Turn the area into the Cambodian-Thai International Friendship Park and set it up as a jointly managed enterprise by both countries’ ministries of tourism. Invite in hawkers, entrepreneurs, whatever, from both sides of the border to set up businesses to cater to the millions of tourists who will want to visit the site in the coming decades and beyond. Tax revenues could be shared by both nations equally. Everybody wins.

If the Thais want a protracted, bloody fight on their hands over the temple, they’ve got one. In the 20 years that I’ve been in Cambodia, the Preah Vihear issue is without question the only one I’ve seen that has united the entire nation.

Cambodian TV stations have been running fund-raisers with donations large and small pouring in from all quarters for two years. Even the normally truculent Sam Rainsy Party and others in the opposition are fully on board.

It’s clear from a visit to the temple last week that the Cambodian military has dug in for the long haul. New heavy tanks, armored personnel carriers and ammunition “donated by friendly countries” are evident all over the base of the escarpment. Battle-scarred veterans, no doubt from all of Cambodia’s four previously warring factions, including ex-Khmer Rouge who controlled the temple from 1975 to 1998, are now all operating under one flag. And yes, of course there are Cambodian soldiers with weapons bunkered around the temple.

If they weren’t there the Thai military could literally walk in and take control of it in five minutes. If this dispute gets any hotter, relations between Cambodia and Thailand will be ruined for years, hundreds on both sides will die needlessly and the economic costs to the two countries will be astronomical.

Cooler heads need to prevail, but rest assured the Cambodians will never, no matter what the price, give up control of Preah Vihear.

Why should they? It’s theirs.

By Michael Hayes co-founder of the Phnom Penh Post, where he served as publisher and editor in chief from 1992 to 2008.

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