erikwdavis

Ta Moan Thom (and Touch) – Which Side of the Border?

In Uncategorized on August 13, 2008 at 2:37 pm

That’s not a serious question – they are both clearly on the Cambodian side of the border. But it is a question you can expect from the immensely silly Nation newspaper in Thailand, and other crazy nationalist folks. (See here for a nicely-worded rebuttal to a Nation editorial from Ambassador to Cambodia Julio Jeldres.)

In spite of news reports that all military personnel on both sides had withdrawn from the devastated Ta Moan Thom temple….”they’re ba-ack!” Thai troops have re-entered the temple compound, constructed gates, are refusing to allow entry to Cambodian troops, and are reportedly constructing new border markers which move the border onto the Cambodian side of the temple.

Cambodia, of course, rejects the Thai claims to ownership, but aren’t (probably can’t) propose anything more forceful.

At this point, it is very clear that neither side has a plan. They are making it up as they go along, wriggling for a slightly better position, like 14-year-old boys clinched in a sublimated homoerotic wrestling contest in the school’s playyard.

The difference is that these guys have guns. (Actually, if you live in the US as I do, that is very likely not a difference).

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  1. I continue to be a bit confused by your repeated claim that the demarcation of the territorial border is obvious, and that the Thais are just flagrantly denying accepted law, fact and precedent. Can you point me to any international legal body’s deliberation that has established the boundary? Because otherwise it seems to me we are stuck in a he-said, she-said scenario where each side’s claim is suspect as blatantly self-interested.

  2. After a bit more searching around, I’m slightly confused too. Google Earth is clearly not a reliable resource for borders. My giant wall map places them inside Cambodia, but it was printed during the PRK period, and who knows whether they were even particularly concerned. I have talked to another friend who says that her map has the Thom temple 0.5 km inside Thailand. Asking for precise specificity on the legal location of either temple vis-a-vis the border is probably a bit much, given the history of the border. It is clear (and uncontroversial) that at least Thom exists within the so-called “white zone,” and therefore could be (is) claimed by either side, since the border within that zone is precisely undemarcated. So, your correction is well-taken – it is in fact unclear.

    What remains clear is that the Thai government is acting like a punished 6-year old: if it can’t grab that cookie, it will attempt to grab the other. Silly really. As for the construction of new boundary markers, that is also uncontroversial – what is controverted between the two sides is whether the new markers are in new places, or in old places. Having personally seen markers moved into Cambodian territory by both Thailand and Vietnam (one at the Anlong Veng checkpoint, the other at the crossing into Southern Vietnam), I’m inclined to give a certain amount of credence to the claim that the markers are in new places. But Cambodians interested in borders tend to be more than a bit quick to jump the gun, and to make extraordinarily broad and aggressive claims.

    On the other hand, in both of the Ta Moan temple cases, the Cambodian government only sent troops to the temples after the Thai military occupied them in contravention of apparently long-held custom on the border.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. My sense is that the white-zone is more clearly ambiguous – if that makes sense – in the case of Ta Moan, whereas due to the World Court ruling on Preah Vihar, the Thais are at more of a disadvantage regarding their claims to the white zone. Although I must confess it is still unclear to me how the World Court ruling affected the white zone issue rather than the temple complex. Heck, I’m not even sure how one territorially distinguishes between the ‘temple complex’ and the surround white zone.

    On another point I’m confused about. I’ve read in several places that there are a multitude of contested complexes and border lines all along the Thai-Cambodian border. I was wondering, do you have any hard numbers on the number of temples or the number of miles of contested borderland? Just wondering.

    By the way, what you call childlike behavior, some would call geo-political realpolitik and throwing one’s military advantage around. I don’t agree with it, but it is more self-interested than silly. Strategically actually, it was rather clever of them. Again, that isn’t an endorsement.

    The fact of the matter is that given the rapid deflation of rhetoric, one can readily assume that the incident – while triggered initially by vapid Thai nationaism – was significantly given staying power by Cambodian electoral politics. And now that that ‘silliness’ is over, so is a good deal of the symbolic power of the tussle over a seemingly perenially ambiguous border.

  4. I’m not overly familiar with the border issue – I try to avoid engaging with it, until huge events like these force the point. The Ta Moan temples were built on the so-called Dharamsala Road, which was intended to connect the Angkor empire in contemporary Cambodia to its outposts in contemporary Phimai, etc. Sorry.

    I’m sure some would call the current behavior realpolitik, but it seems exactmly the opposite. My understanding of realpolitik (which I don’t think actually exists, but that’s another conversation) is that it is essentially a machiavellian attitude toward power, consisting of a willingness to do whatever necessary to acquire and preserve sheer power. What has been going on in Thailand lately has been driven not by such calculated rationality, even less by the government, but instead by a group of anti-government protesters who have opportunistically seized on the temple/border issues to rally nationalism. The government first attempted to contain the protests, then to accommodate them. Now a real cleavage exists, but it remains to be seen whether it will lead to anything.

    As for the Cambodian election, I think it definitely affected the ability to resolve the temple issue earlier, but we should be careful not to overstate the relevance of the election here – Cambodians are at least as interested in the ‘integrity of their borders’ as US citizens tend to be (think “Minutemen”), and have a long history of having those borders infringed upon (in reality and national imagination).

    Thanks again for engaging here.

  5. I have to disagree with the assessment that the Cambodia government exploited the Preah Vihear border conflict to rally nationalism before the election. Quite the opposite is true. The government consistently asked for tolerance, consistently stated that the problem with Thailand was a mere “”‘misunderstanding,” and never once stoop to bad-mouthing the Thais. Even the opposition, for whatever reason, mostly refused to stir the pot.

    What the Cambodian government did do is celebrate the new listing of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Status site, a huge source of national pride. That’s a lot different than fanning the flames of anti-Thai hatred. As Mr Davis points out, the same cannot be said of Thai political parties.

    As for Ta Moan Thom, if I remember correctly, the temple and surrounding area were part of a 2000 border treaty between the two countries. Both sides claim ownership of the temple. The treaty recognized the temple’s disputed status, and both sides agreed not to build or otherwise exploit for personal gain the area until both sides could reach an agreement on ownership and border demarcation. By building roads and fences and refusing Cambodians entry to the temple grounds, the Thais have failed to honor their side of the bargain.

  6. @DAS: I do agree that the Cambodian government acted with admirable restraint in this case; I even failed to see much election-period rhetoric coming from the CPP on this front. All this is surprising, to me at least, given the rather clear involvement of the CPP’s ‘boy scouts’ in the Pagoda Boys-led attack on the Thai embassy and businesses in 2003. Thanks for engaging on this point; since I’ve been out of the country since Winter, and then only for a month, my sense of the ground gets fuzzy. Warmly,

  7. I didn’t say the Cambodian government exploited the incident. I suggested that electoral politics helped fuel an inflamed nationalist response on the Cambodian side as well. Lots of groups had a role in that escalation on both sides of the border – the media, the blogosphere, politicians, academics, etc.

    Are you going to argue that Thais are overcome by irrational nationalism on this issue but the Cambodians are not? That the media in Cambodia responded with calm measure but the Thai media was irresponsible? Are you going to claim that the recourse to an increased military presence at the site was all provoked by Thailand, that Hun Sen didn’t feel the need to buttress his prowess through an intensified military presence at the site because he couldn’t afford to look weak before the electorate against a ‘traditional’ foreign enemy given an election was just around the corner?

    And I’m sorry, the timing of intensification and then de-escalation is simply far too serendipitous. No connection at all to electoral politics?

    I don’t read the Cambodian press very regularly at all, so I would appreciate it if you could point me to some accounts by Cambodian scholars and journalists taking the govt, press and / or average Cambodian to task for their nationalistic misunderstanding and inflaming of the issues at play. I have read many accounts in this vein in the Thai press and blogosphere (such as this one: http://bangkokpundit.blogspot.com/2008/08/complex-situation-on-border-and-thai.html

  8. @Erick: I think that DAS may have misread your intent vis-a-vis the issue of the Cambodian government’s response to the Preah Vihear standoff. I like your initial formulation better:

    the incident – while triggered initially by vapid Thai nationaism – was significantly given staying power by Cambodian electoral politics.

    Indeed. However, I disagree with your elaboration:

    I suggested that electoral politics helped fuel an inflamed nationalist response on the Cambodian side as well.

    My sense (again, not in either country right now) was that the election played a role in extending the conflict precisely to the extent that calculations were being made on the Thai side of the border. Hun Sen and his cronies made every effort to control any nationalist sentiment, no matter how subdued or even acceptable, to the extent of recently attacking union protests against the Thai incursions with weapons they didn’t once use on Thai soldiers.

    To answer some of your other (rhetorical?) questions,

    Are you going to argue that Thais are overcome by irrational nationalism on this issue but the Cambodians are not? That the media in Cambodia responded with calm measure but the Thai media was irresponsible? Are you going to claim that the recourse to an increased military presence at the site was all provoked by Thailand, that Hun Sen didn’t feel the need to buttress his prowess through an intensified military presence at the site because he couldn’t afford to look weak before the electorate against a ‘traditional’ foreign enemy given an election was just around the corner?

    I think I would answer in every case, yes, as long as we limit the scope of that answer to this particular flare-up. Certainly, Cambodians have been overcome by nationalism just as stupid, irresponsible, and irrational as that of the Thai, currently, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it at all in this situation. KI-Media, a hyper-nationalist online news source run largely by expatriate Khmer, even had a hard time whipping up truly bizarre sentiments. I think that the image of Cambodia coming out of Thailand is only now becoming apparently false to many observers who have little experience with Cambodia. That some might want to characterize the recent scuffle in a “there’s enough blame to go around” sort of manner is inappropriate, I think. Sometimes blame goes mostly in one direction. It certainly did in the 2003 anti-Thai riots, when Cambodians burned down the Thai embassy and Thai businesses, and a few people died. It certainly seems to now.

    Comparing the Thai and Khmer-language presses is a bit like comparing apples and chairs, I’m afraid. And, given the lack of overtly crazy nationalist sentiment on the Khmer side during this recently debacle, perhaps there wasn’t need for the sort of moderating voices you point to in the bangkok pundit posting (which wasn’t as moderate as it may seem, given the realities of the history in question).

    But I can point to some excellent examples of Khmer bloggers (which in many cases take the role of public intellectuals in Cambodia today, strangely) where they attempted to deal with the outright racism of Thai attacks on Cambodians in deeply measured ways. Try this one for instance. I’ve linked to the comment in particular, but do read the instigating comments above, for an instance of what comes across the border into Cambodia. This interaction even had a happy ending, thanks to the measured response of Mongkol.

  9. I agree with Erik that there was a “lack of overtly crazy nationalist sentiment on the Khmer side during this recently debacle” as opposed to the Thai side, which started all this. I think the reason behind is the difference in state ideologies of both countries, Thailand being overtly in line with nationalist ideology while Cambodia doesn’t have a clear state ideology – perhaps elitist – but where nationalist sentiments have in recent times been greatly suppressed. (just compare the national anthems of both countries and you’ll see the contrasts in assertiveness.) I might be biased, but I tend to think that the non-assertive mentality of Khmers (or passiveness – even) may have allowed the Thais to move in troops into the ‘disputed’ area in the first place – knowing that there would not be any strong response from the cambodian side. (the opposite would happen if Cambodian troops moved into the ‘disputed’ area near Ta Moan complex.) Admittedly, Cambodia’s PM said war would have broken out were it not for him being the khmer leader at the time.

    I would downplay the election politics role in the dispute – Thai media admitting that the dispute hasn’t de-escalated to a level “expected” after the elections. The ruling party certainly made gains from both the Unesco event and the subsequent dispute, but to say it “exploited” the issue like the Thai opposition is a clear exaggeration.

    But as a Khmer (somehow nationalist), given the govt’s record in suppressing nationalist sentiments, the revival of nationalist songs such as pongsavadar khmer during the post-Unesco listing and in the run-up to the elections as well the use of the derogatory term “siem” in state/private media outlets took me by surprise. This practice as well as the fundraisings, as opposed to the state-to-state affairs – in fact seemed to have gained momentum well after the elections. To me, it’s a rare national unity in decades (not to be cynical).

  10. Khmerlander, I agreed with you every point until i reached the end. For clarification, I believe you should not continue to insinuate that the word siem is a Khmer degoratory term for Thailand. It is the proper and former name of Thailand. This misleading information can make one jump to false conclusion about the “irrationality/nationlism” of Khmer. You can follow up this term on this blog. http://philipgolingai.blogspot.com/2007/04/historian-campaigns-to-rename-thailand.html

    which explains the etymology of the word and some Siem people’s attempt to have their country renamed to this former title.

  11. The term Siam is the previous name for Thailand both internationally and within Thailand itself. However, the term siem is used in Cambodia in a derogatory fashion… It can be found in Siem Reap the town contiguous to Angkor. The name Siem Reap means the ‘Defeat of Siam’ —today’s Thailand —and refers to a centuries-old bloodbath, commemorated in stone in the celebrated bas relief carvings of the monuments. In 1907 Angkor, which had been under Thai control, was returned to Cambodia. Resentment can still be discerned from the term in use by Cambodians in every day speech, often in response to perceived Thai racism for most of their neighbours.

  12. I realize that I am hella-late to the debate here, but — Ivan is wrong. The Khmer word ‘Siem’ is not intrinsically derogatory, neither is Youn, Chun, Barang, nor Alimon. Those are simply the Khmer terms for what English speakers would call Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, French and German, respectively. Outsiders will seldom if ever see Siem or Youn used in non-racially charged contexts, however, so it’s not surprising that many make this assumption. I did too for many years.

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