Preah Vihear

November 11, 2013

The United Nations has finally ruled on a disputed piece of land surrounding a famous temple in the far north of Cambodia, saying that the Thais must withdraw from the area, as it belongs to Cambodia. At least, that’s what I could work out from listening to the tedious verbiage that the International Court of Justice decorated its decision in – some people are saying that there is still a chunk of land they didn’t rule on.

The temple complex, called Preah Vihear, is miles from anywhere, and not many people get up there: I haven’t yet made it. It is spectacularly located, on the top of a 1,700-foot cliff, and construction began in the ninth century. I’m desperate to go. But it’s quite dangerous: 18 people died in military clashes there in 2011 after the Thais and Cambodians both asserted their sovereignty over the area, and many people expect more fighting this time.

The Bangkok Post is claiming that Cambodia has introduced more than a thousand plain-clothed “temple security guards” armed with AK-47s to the temple complex; this weekend the chief of Cambodia’s military called an emergency meeting after Thai aircraft were seen flying low around the disputed land.

A 1962 verdict by the International Court of Justice declared the temple Cambodian, but didn’t rule on the 4.6 kilometre area surrounding it. Cambodia sought a clarification in 2011, after fighting erupted.

Thanks to the BBC

Thanks to the BBC

Cambodia has a right to get a bit shirty about its neighbours trying to claim its territory. If you go into Thailand from Koh Kong province, you quickly notice how there’s this weird long and thin strip of valuable coastline that is supposedly Thai territory; to the north it’s all Cambodia. And at the other end of the country, visitors to Kep look out over the beautiful island of Phu Quoc, just 10 kilometres from Cambodia and some 40 kilometres form Vietnam, which administers it.

But analysts note that Thailand is in a precarious position, politically. “For Thailand, the ICJ decision on Preah Vihear comes at a critical juncture,” Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak told a local newspaper. “Any change in the status quo would play into the hands and perhaps become the key catalyst of the anti-Thaksin/anti-government protesters in Bangkok. They … could well be for a government overthrow next week if the ICJ rules against Thailand.”

Of course, over the last 1,500 years, the three countries have ebbed and flowed over the maps here as warring kingdoms have advanced and retreated. But Cambodia has suffered more in recent years, and Preah Vihear is an important part of the country’s pride and self-image.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

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