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THAILAND/CAMBODIA: Row Over Ancient Temple May Sour ASEAN Spirit ខែកក្កដា 22, 2008

Posted by សុភ័ក្ត្រ in News.
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By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 18 (IPS) – Amornchai Sirisai has been a regular visitor to the Thai-Cambodian border close to where a 10th century Hindu temple sits atop a steep cliff. But it is not tourism that takes the Thai national to the ancient site.

He has been working for two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged in clearing landmines on the Thai side of the border near the temple in the northern Cambodian province of Preah Vihear, where the Khmer Rouge made its last stand before surrendering in 1998.

The area is pockmarked by shell craters and land mines being cleared by the Japan Alliance for Humanitarian Demining Support (JAHDS) and the Mekong Organisation for Mankind (MOM) to make the temple, built by the Khmer kings who ruled Cambodia, more accessible to local and foreign visitors.

But these days it is not the fear of people stepping on landmines that worries the project manager of MOM. The temple has been at the centre of a bitter dispute after Cambodia won international approval this month to recognise Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site. The committee that gave Phnom Penh the nod to list the temple as its own is an affiliate of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Tension between the two South-east Asian neighbours reached a dangerous level by Thursday with hundreds of troops ordered by both countries to maintain vigil near the border. Fuelling this tense environment were hundreds of Thais belonging to an anti-government group who rushed to the spot to chant nationalist slogans, declaring that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Thailand and had been ‘’stolen’’ by Cambodia.

‘’The situation here is getting bad. It has not been like this before,’’ Amornchai said during a telephone interview from Si Sa Ket, the Thai border province that faces the temple. ‘’Both countries have ordered soldiers near the border. They are facing each other.’’

The growing wave of strident Thai nationalism — and anti-Cambodian slogans — has already delivered a sharp blow to the government of Prime Minster Samak Sundaravej.

Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to resign after he returned to Bangkok on Jul. 10 following the meeting of the World Heritage committee, which ruled 8-1 in favour of Cambodia getting the ancient temple, dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva.

Across the border, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has been using the UNESCO approval to list the temple as a World Heritage site to advantage in its campaign for parliamentary elections scheduled for Jul. 27, 2008.

Moderate Thais say nationalists are refusing to accept recent history and facts that strengthen Cambodia’s claims to the temple upheld in 1962 by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. The Thai government, under a military dictatorship in 1963, accepted the verdict but claimed ownership of a small area of land between the temple and the Thai border which offers the main access route to the historic site.

‘’As a member of the U.N., Thailand had to accept the ruling and hand the temple over to Cambodia. In the decades since, there has been no legal bid to reclaim the site,’’ wrote Supalak Ganjanakhundee in a commentary in Thursday’s edition of ‘The Nation’ newspaper. ‘’In the language of the law, de facto and de jure, the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia.’’

Yet the recent burst of tension at that particular point on the Thai-Cambodian border is not the first. In November 2004 Thai troops were ordered to patrol their side of the border over another disagreement regarding the sliver of no-man’s-land area. And there have been times over the past seven years when locals and foreigners seeking to enter the temple from the Thai side have been denied access by Cambodian officials.

The dispute is seen as a legacy of French colonisation of Indo-China when Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were under the grip of Paris. Thailand, which was never colonised, remained a buffer between the French colonists, to its east, and the British, to its west and south. The current border that separates Thailand and its two eastern neighbours was drawn up by French officials.

Yet the border that separates Thailand from Cambodia and Laos is dotted with grey areas that have sparked disputes in the past. Towards the end of 1987, Thai and Laotian troops clashed over a territory that Laos claimed was part of its Xaignabouri province, while the Thais claimed the area belonged to its Phitsanulok province. By the time a ceasefire was declared in February 1988, over 1,000 soldiers were killed, most of them Thais.

The current dispute which threatens to sour Thai-Cambodian relations could not have come at a worse time for Bangkok. It is getting ready to take over as the head of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc of which Thailand and Cambodia are members. The others are Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

Last November, ASEAN leaders signed a charter for the regional body aimed at greater integration to create a unified community at the political, economic and social level by 2015. This legally binding document was an attempt to revamp the group’s relevance on the world stage.

ASEAN was created in 1967 to stall the spread of communism in the region and advance free-market policies. But its usefulness began to fade with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s and the financial crash mid-way in that decade.

Now, a growing wave of nationalism is posing a further challenge to the new chapter on stronger regional unity that ASEAN wants to write. ‘’Bruised nationalism is stimulating feelings of hatred between Thais and Cambodian,’’ says Supalak. ‘’Anti-Cambodian sentiment is growing stronger as Thais — who consider themselves superior to their south-eastern neighbours — feel they have lost face (because of the temple).’’

ប្រភព៖ http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=43232

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