Preah Vihear: the Thai-Cambodia temple dispute

Milton Osborne
8 February 2011

The sudden re-emergence of contested Cambodian and Thai claims to sovereignty over about 4 square kilometres of territory close the Angkorian-period (9th-15th centuries) temple of Preah Vihear brought the two southeast Asian countries close to armed confrontation in July-August 2008. The dispute bring into focus the difficult relations that have existed between the two neighbouring countries ever since Cambodia attained independence in 1953, as well reflecting much older historical problems between the two countries.

Milton Osborne is an adjunct professor of Asian studies at the Australian National University, Canberra, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney.

Among his books are The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859-1905) (1969; White Lotus, 1997) and Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal Books, 2008)

At one level the Preah Vihear crisis - supplemented by another dispute over a much less prominent temple-site at Ta Moan Thom, well to the west of Preah Vihear - may be viewed as a classic example of contested boundaries arising from decisions taken during the colonial era, when France was able to impose its will over the then weaker state of Siam (Thailand). This interpretation - which Cambodia rejects - is worth examining. But it is at least as important to consider contemporary developments in the context of earlier historical and geopolitical factors that lie behind Cambodia's existence as a state and the views held of it by its immediate and more powerful neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. For while the governments of both Thailand and Vietnam may be hesitant to express the views held by some of their citizens, there is no doubt that in both these countries there are those who privately question Cambodia's right to exist as a truly independent state.

In the case of Vietnam, a strong case may be made to argue that when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to defeat the Pol Pot regime in December 1978, it initially hoped that it would be possible to incorporate Cambodia into some form of "Indochinese Federation"; this would have included Laos, which would have been dominated by Vietnam. Such a view was a continuation of the explicit thinking of the Vietnamese Communist Party in the 1930s and into the 1960s, when the party held the view that neither Cambodia nor Laos had a right to run their own revolution.

The uncertain state

The distinguished historian David Chandler noted (in A History of Cambodia) that until the 17th century Cambodia was a "reasonably independent" state. By the 19th century it had lost this status and its internal politics were dominated by its powerful neighbours, Siam and Vietnam. Perhaps the most useful, if shorthanded, way to describe Cambodia's situation in the mid-19th century was that it was a vassal state in a tributary relationship to two suzerains, Siam and Vietnam. But of those two powerful and expanding states Siam had by the 1840s assumed the more important position. Moreover, and despite some Cambodian rulers having sought assistance from Vietnam, Siam's greater dominance also reflected the fact that the two countries shared a similar culture. It was one deeply affected by adherence to Theravada Buddhism and by surviving shared beliefs and court rituals that harked back to Hindu concepts of the state developed during the Angkorian period.

In the decades immediately before the French asserted their colonial control over Cambodia in 1863, Cambodian rulers looked to the Siamese court in Bangkok to guarantee both their position and their legitimacy. This situation is exemplified in the fact that members of the Cambodian royal family often spent long periods as hostages in the Siamese court in Bangkok. This was true of the last king to rule Cambodia before the arrival of the French and of King Norodom I before he came to the throne in 1860. At the same time Siamese officials occupied senior positions within the Cambodian rulers' courts, determining which foreign representatives they were permitted to meet.

In these circumstances, and from the Siamese point of view, Cambodia's king was a person who held power at their behest. Again using European terminology, the Cambodian king was for the Siamese court the holder of a vice-regal position. This complex relationship differed sharply from the way in which Vietnamese rulers viewed Cambodia. Both in theory and in practice the Vietnamese rulers in the first half of the 19th century were ready to pursue policies which, had they succeeded, would have transformed Cambodia's status into being an integral part of the Vietnamese state governed in accordance with Vietnam's Chinese-influenced administrative practices.
For further study of the historical and political background of the subject of this article, see:

David Chandler, A History of Cambodia (Westview Press, 4th edition, 2007) - the most accessible and reliable survey of Cambodian history

John Tully, A Short History of Cambodia: from empire to survival (Allen & Unwin, 2005) - for an understanding of the historical relations between Cambodia and Thailand

Tongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (University of Hawaii Press, 1994) - a groundbreaking review of Thai attitudes towards the formation of Thailand's borders

Penny Edwards, Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945 (University of Hawaii Press, 2006) - on the complexity of relations between Cambodia and Thailand

Milton Osborne, The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859-1905) (1969; White Lotus, 2006)

Milton Osborne, Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal Books, 2008)
The border line

The French gained control of Cambodia in 1863 and established their "protectorate" over the country - though in every way that mattered the term "protectorate" was merely a legal figleaf to hide the fact that was a French colony. At the time, Cambodia's territory did not include what are now the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap. These two important areas had fallen under Siamese control in 1794, the outcome indeed of what had been a long reduction of Cambodian control over former Angkorian territories. A contemporary reflection of this process is the fact that a substantial number of Khmer (Cambodian) speaking Thai citizens continue to live in northeastern Thailand, an area in which there are many Angkorian-period temples.

In the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, Anglo-French rivalry in mainland southeast Asia led to the adjustment and implantation of borders that remain essentially unchanged to the present day. It was in this period, for example, that the northern states of modern peninsular Malaysia were removed from Siamese to British control. In Cambodia's case, and reflecting France's greater coercive power, this mixture of mapping and absorption led to the return to Cambodian sovereignty of the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap.

This process was consolidated in 1907-08 with the establishment of a Cambodian northern boundary that took in the temple of Preah Vihear, located on an escarpment 525 metres above the northern Cambodian plain. But the precise coordinates of the boundary at this point were apparently in contradiction to the principle that had been laid down when the boundary between Cambodia and Siam was being delineated: namely, that the boundary should be drawn in terms of the existing watershed.

This created a potential problem from an international legal point of view, and led to an appeal by Thailand to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague to rule on the question of which country had sovereignty over Preah Vihear. In June 1962, the court ruled that indeed Cambodia held sovereignty. But the factors which led to this decision were not based on a judgment as to whether the boundary established in 1907-08 was "fair" or that it had been drawn in relation to the location of the watershed. Rather (and to summarise very briefly), the ICJ's decision rested on the fact that over many decades the Bangkok government had not disputed the validity of the map drawn up by the French, and agreed to at the time by the Siamese authorities, that incorporated Preah Vihear into Cambodian territory. The court also accepted that Siam had recognised Cambodian sovereignty in various other ways, including through visits to the temple by senior Siamese officials who were received by members of the French administration then governing Cambodia.

Thai ambition, Cambodian fear

However, it is fair to say that legal considerations are not always at the heart of Thai thinking on relations with Cambodia. From the time of Cambodia's gaining independence in 1953 until the onset of the Cambodian civil war in 1970, relations between Thailand and Cambodia were marked by almost continuous difficulty. While there were brief periods when relations were "correct", in others diplomatic relations were suspended. Throughout these years Thai security services worked to undermine the government in Phnom Penh.

This was a fact explicitly stated to me by a senior Thai official with security responsibilities, during an extended discussion of Thai-Cambodian relations in 1980. General Channa Samudvanija observed that in essence, Thai policy towards Cambodia was to support those forces within the country that opposed the existing government. The rationale behind such a policy was the Realpolitik view of seeking to weaken a neighbour with which Thailand had substantial policy differences: Thailand supported United States policies in southeast Asia and Cambodia did not. Without placing excessive weight on the continuity of Thai policy at this stage with previous historical relations with Cambodia, there is no doubt that the views Channa advanced were also in part a reflection of those relations.

In similar fashion, it would be incorrect to regard the conflict that erupted in July 2008 as a direct manifestation of the view expressed in 1980 by General Channa. For it is clear that the crisis arose in part out of domestic Thai politics - and the positions being taken both by the government led by prime minister Samak and his political opponents. The Thai opposition had sought to undermine the Samak government by criticising its readiness to support Cambodia's wish to see Preah Vihear inscribed on Unesco's world heritage list.
Also in openDemocracy about Cambodian politics and history:

David Hayes, "Thinking of Cambodia" (17 April 2003)

Var Hong Ashe, "Cambodia: surviving the Khmer Rouge" (15 April 2005)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Kheang Un,"Cambodia's 2008 election: the end of opposition?" (5 August 2008)
Nevertheless, discussion of the issue of Preah Vihear within Thailand does represent yet another instance of a readiness of some Thais, whether politicians or ordinary citizens, to adopt and advance positions that seek to undermine what they see as irrelevant and irksome Cambodian interests. The readiness of some observers to resort to describing the situation as an expression of big brother-little brother rivalry is too simple, but it would be equally wrong to dismiss this aspect of Thai and Cambodian thinking about the relationship between the two countries.

At the same time, there is no doubting that the ingrained sensitivity felt by many Cambodians in relation to their relations with both Thailand and Vietnam on occasion borders on paranoia. This was demonstrated in the events of 2003, when a Thai TV actress with a popular following in both Thailand and Cambodia was supposed to have stated that she would not perform in Cambodia until that country restored Thailand's sovereignty over the great Angkorian temple of Angkor Wat. Whether the actress, Suwanan Kongying, made such a statement or not, the publicity that surrounded her alleged remark led to serious ant-Thai rioting in Phnom Penh; the damage included the destruction of the Thai embassy and many Thai businesses (there was also a barely averted attack on the Thai ambassador). Here, again, a deeper analysis of the 2003 riots suggests that domestic Cambodian issues were involved.

The wall between us

This intimate yet conflictual history means that even the settlement of the latest dispute is no guarantee that the situation has been settled once and for all.

For the wider issues associated with Preah Vihear are no nearer to being resolved. The mutual military withdrawals from the temple area have brought respite; but the memory of the febrile stand-off between Thai and Cambodian armed forces, amid ultra-nationalist rhetoric from politicians on both sides, remains fresh. The ever-present readiness of politicians in both countries to stoke the flames of nationalist animosity is reflected in the suggestion by a Cambodian official that the Phnom Penh government might build a wall that would exclude access to the temple from Thai territory - as is possible at present.

Indeed, at least for the moment diplomacy has won out over war, as two sessions of talks between the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers have helped create a marginally improved atmosphere. The fact that the new and highly regarded Thai foreign minister, Tej Bunnag, had been appointed at the direct wish of the king is also of importance. Now, however, Tej Bunnag's decision to leave his post - though unlikely to have any immediate effect on the Preah Vihear issue at a time when Bangkok is preoccupied with domestic political turmoil - may be regretted over the longer term since he was undoubtedly a calming influence in relation to Thai policies.

In any event, a lengthy and continuing period of political turmoil in Thailand creates the possibility that the question of Preah Vihear may yet return to haunt Thai-Cambodian relations.


The author gratefully acknowledges the helpful comments on this article given to him by Emeritus Professor David Chandler of Monash University

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