The Battle of the Temples

BANGKOK – The military skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia that have claimed more than two dozen lives, caused scores of injuries, and displaced tens of thousands of people since February are primarily attributable to domestic politics in both countries. Rooted in ancient enmities and the legacy of the colonial era, the fighting is damaging the entire region. So virulent is the dispute that even a short-term settlement will require third-party mediation. A secure peace will depend mainly on how the endgame to Thailand’s domestic political crisis plays out in the coming months – and on Cambodia’s willingness to stay out of this process.

At issue in the conflict is 4.6 square kilometers that adjoin a millennium-old Hindu temple known as “Preah Vihear” to Cambodians and “Phra Viharn” to Thais. Cambodia insists that the disputed land has been under its territorial sovereignty since a landmark case decided by the International Court of Justice in 1962. In its 9-to-3 verdict, the ICJ ruled that Cambodia’s map, drawn up by French surveyors in 1904-1907, put the temple area in Cambodia, and that Thailand (known as Siam until 1939) had not objected previously. During the hearings, Cambodia asked the ICJ to rule on the adjoining land, but the judges confined their decision only to the temple, as Cambodia originally requested.

The French-made map became the core of the dispute, because it manipulated natural geographic divisions. Thailand rejects the map, which contravenes a Franco-Siamese agreement in 1904 stipulating a demarcation along a watershed line separating the two countries. Moreover, the French mapping effort took place just a decade after Siam ceded a clutch of territories – much of today’s western Cambodia – to France, which was then perched above Indochina as the colonial master At that time, a vulnerable Siam was compelled to sign a host of unequal treaties with European powers in exchange for maintaining its independence.

Until recently, the overlapping claims on the 4.6 square kilometers were not a serious issue. Villagers and merchants from both sides conducted a brisk business and border trade unfettered by the authorities. Bilateral tensions flared when Thai politics heated up after the September 2006 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, on charges of corruption and disloyalty to the monarchy.