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Preah Vihear

I’ve got my own land conflicts right now, which have prevented my covering this as well as I should have done – my ex slumlord is trying to stick it to me on my much-needed security deposit – but nothing like what Cambodia and Thailand are going through.

And it must be said, though most of what you get out of Thailand – and hence out of the international press, which ignores Cambodian media (Asia News Network insists on calling Preah Vihear by its Thai name, Phra Viharn) – is that this is somehow a ‘confusing’ issue, and that there is a possibility for a ‘win-win’ situation.

Meanwhile, Thai citizens who live at the border are having their livelihoods destroyed by the PAD thugs, Thai businessmen are fleeing Cambodia, a popular boycott of Thai goods has erupted in Cambodia (see especially Mama Noodle), and Cambodian villagers are fleeing the area for their safety.

It’s not confusing, unless you are willfully blind. The temple has been settled since 1962, though crazy nationalists in Thailand, under the current guise of the PAD, keep using it as an opportunistic issue to gain power. The matter of land has been settled for over a century – since 1907, in fact. (The only party to that treaty that has a legitimate reason to complain would appear to be the Cambodians, who unlike the Thai, were a colony at that point and had no say in the border demarcation). The actual documents settling this, along with some straight talk on the matter, can be found via DetailsAreSketchy’s post here. As DAS put it:

If Thailand has thus far pilloried the idea of ASEAN intervention, the thought of Security Council involvement must leave Thai officials reaching for the hemlock.

There is a reason for that. The treaty of 1907, which Thailand ratified, is the legal basis for the Thai-Cambodia border. No matter how you try to massage it, Thailand is clearly in violation of that treaty. Under the scrutiny of independent third parties, it will become impossible for Thailand to deny that reality — which is why Thailand would really rather no one look too closely.

Wait – what was that about ASEAN and the security council? Well, Thailand, with much more international power, prestige, and especially military might (by serving as the United State’s security node in mainland Southeast Asia for over half a century now), definitely wants to prevent any external body from adjudicating this matter. As noted by DAS above, that’s because any actual examination of the relevant documents gives the case straight to Cambodia.

So of course Thailand doesn’t want ASEAN to weigh in on the matter. They won’t even talk about it with Cambodia anymore, leaving their only preferred option – military might – clear. And they’re in relatively good stead here, since ASEAN has an explicit non-intervention in internal affairs policy, designed to placate thug regimes like those of Burma. But, ASEAN has also been indicating an increased willingness to abandon that policy in the interests of preventing widespread catastrophe and instability. So maybe that’s what is behind their recent decision to take this issue up, despite Thailand’s shameless efforts to keep it off the table.

But the Security Council is another matter – and unless the US steps in to settle this on behalf of Thailand – which I doubt it would at this moment in history – the Thai government is likely to lose here as well.

So, the Thai ambassador to the UN has resorted to name-calling, claiming the Cambodian troops – stationed on Cambodian soil – are using ‘guerilla tactics’ to attempt to redraw the national boundary. It’s particularly unfortunate given that, following the Vietnamese defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it was only with the Thai government’s help that the Khmer Rouge were able to rearm and become a plausible military force for the next two decades.

The big question is, assuming this military buildup does not erupt into actual fighting (a big if, at this point, since guns have already been drawn at least once), what will the eventual loss of this case mean for internal politics in Thailand? the PAD staked a lot of its prestige on their recent, massive protests against the awarding of World Heritage Status to Preah Vihear – they lost. Now they’ve sent over 5,000 members to attack local villagers near the temple and demand the surrounding land. If they lose that too, what will be their next move?

Meanwhile, Cambodia is set to undergo a major national election this weekend, in which the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, will win most of the seats. It will be a landslide, but the question there is, will it be an absolute majority?

[Current photos of soldiers and civilians at Preah Vihea by Magnum photographer John Vink can be found at his excellent site, full of great Cambodia photos. Go. visit. right. after. you. finish. this.]

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One thought on “Preah Vihear

  1. Pingback: UN will hear Preah Vihear case « Cambodia: Details are Sketchy

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