Preah Vihear has been much in the news of late, much to my annoyance, Thailand’s shame, and to the possible detriment of many. The amazing Thongchai Winichakul wrote this piece, special to The Nation. Author of the justly famous Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Thongchai is perhaps unequaled in his authoritative and deeply humane and moral stance on this issue.
Preah Vihear can be ‘time bomb’
By Thongchai Winichakul
special to The Nation
Published on June 30, 2008
Using the temple to fan nationalism can lead to much bigger tragedy
The nature of modern boundaries between Thailand and its neighbours is like a time bomb.
All boundaries today bear the legacies of old world politics that did not much care if a demarcation by a sharp line, or the unambiguous territorial sovereignty, carried repercussions.
With little exception, claims to exclusive “ownership” rights of borderlands longer than the past 100 to 130 years are probably false and historically impossible to support.
Given the explosive foundation of the modern boundary, maps, treaties and courts have provided settlements of such areas.They are the ground rules used by modern nations to co-exist.
For the boundary around Preah Vihear, the International Court of Justice in 1962 provided a settlement without which military might and heavy loss of lives would have been the only other option.
We should respect the settlement provided by the court since Thailand has no better justifiable claim than Cambodia.
Despite that, the talks about “losing territory” have been common among thoughtless nationalists in the region.
Lao nationalists talk about losing the Isaan region to Thailand. Cambodian ones talk about losing territories to Thailand and Vietnam.
They produce maps of lost territories like Thai nationalists did for generations.
Thais have been taught their territories were lost as well. Every country lost territories. The idea of loss is a powerful tool used to whip up nationalism, especially in domestic politics.
The dark side of nationalism is dangerous as ever. It has now become a weapon in today’s Thai politics.
Nationalism is like fire and it can be destructive.Another kind of “fire”, according to Buddhism, generates greed, hatred and delusion.
Thai nationalism is based on a few ideological premises that are powerful in creating hatred and delusion but historically dubious. Yet many people believe them wholeheartedly.
One of the false premises for fanning hatred and creating delusion is the perception of lost territories. It is necessary to promote false memory for Thai nationalism to survive and for Thai historical ideology to flourish.
Without it, local nationalism could crumble. Such false memories have to be fed to the masses repeatedly until people believe them to be true.
The Preah Vihear World Heritage case has gone beyond technicalities. It is abused to arouse delusion that the temple belongs to Thailand and a desire to revive the claim.
The purpose is to generate hatred in Thai politics. Nationalism is dangerous, especially a foolish one like this.
The PAD and their media supporters are doing the same thing they despised when Cambodian nationalists drummed hysteria against Thailand a few years ago.
They are irresponsibly playing with fire. If they want to fight for all disputable cases, there are probably hundreds of them to choose and to send soldiers to die for.
Do we remember the Thai-Lao dispute in 1988 for Hill 1428, a no man’s land known only by its number on a military map, which resulted in the loss of thousands of Thai soldiers?
The incident was also a tragic consequence of foolish nationalism.
It is sad that media, with little professionalism, and the PAD carelessly jump to whatever they want to use, including an unqualified argument by a historian who claims to be an expert on the boundary issue.
But he has never produced research on the subject.
Academic and media professionalism had been breached for political gains and carries the possibility of grave consequences.
-Prof Thongchai Winichakul is a historian and author of “Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo Body of a Nation.”