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While the Cambodian and Thai governments continue their dispute over the management of the Preah Vihear temple, this article explores the social cost of the dispute – the temple, once a symbol of unity for Thais and Cambodians living in the area, have become divided along nationalistic lines.

Politics and Preah Vihear
Bangkok Post, 19 February 2008
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POLITICS AND PREAH VIHEAR
A shared cultural heritage is again at the centre of a tug of war

As the 60-year-old musician draws the bow across his three-string fiddle, a sweet Cambodian wedding melody floats around the ancient temple of Preah Vihear, breaking the morning silence. Uncle Wan’s musical stage is a small space in the sanctuary’s gallery where every day he plays his tro, or traditional Cambodian fiddle. Visitors like his music and many give him money.

Born in Siem Reap, uncle Wan grew up amid the violence that tore his country apart 30 years ago. Like so many other young men he was drawn into the war between the communist Khmer Rouge and the royalist forces. He served as a soldier – and lost his left leg.

His handicap made it difficult for him to work in the turmoil that followed the war, so he turned to music.

Recently, uncle Wan moved to a new town near the sanctuary and every day he climbs to the ancient temple, where he earns enough money to support his family.

However, history shows that Preah Vihear, which sits on top of the steep cliff of the Dangrek range separating Thailand and Cambodia, has not always been an open-door for opportunity.

Due to the dispute over the blurred boundary between Thailand and Cambodia, the sanctuary has been alternately closed and opened to visitors.

The last time it was closed was in 2002. It was reopened a year later.

Such swings in border diplomacy have not only made life harder for people like uncle Wan, but also created an atmosphere of distrust between Thais and Cambodians in the area.

A Thai senior forestry ranger at Khao Phra Viharn national park, as the sanctuary is called in Thailand, said that when the two governments fall out, people even stop talking to each other _ instead standing mutely, face to face, with only a steel bar erected between them.

”People here hardly ever have problems with each other,” the park ranger said.

”But once we receive orders to close the border, we become as strangers, acting as if we have never met each other before.”

Cambodia’s recent efforts to nominate Phreah Vihear as a Word Heritage site has again put the people in the border area under pressure.

Cambodia officially requested the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to list the old temple as a World Heritage site in 2001.

Since then, it has been going ahead with the proposal alone, without Thailand taking part.

Last year, at a meeting of the World Heritage Committee in New Zealand, Thailand protested against the proposal.

This resulted in a recommendation that the two countries work out a way to manage the site together.

Thai officials involved in the issue say Cambodia’s proposal extends over unsettled boundary lines into areas also claimed by Thailand.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), which consults with Unesco on nominated sites, mentioned in its evaluation report that the frontier between Cambodia and Thailand passes alongside the northern boundary of the nominated property.

It referred to information provided by another agency, that the precise location of the frontier is currently disputed by the two countries.

A process to resolve both the boundaries of the temple site and of the frontier should continue, to ensure the sound long-term management of the property, it said.

For the site to be nominated, inclusions of some outer areas and a buffer zone are needed to help protect it from external influences, according to a senior Thai archeologist working on the recommended joint management plan.

The inclusion of such areas requires recognition not only from Cambodia, but also from Thailand, the report noted.

But the two countries would not be struggling to agree on sovereignty issues if a hundred years of colonisation had not laid such a heavy hand over the border area.

Assoc Prof Surachart Bamrungsuk, a military strategist at Chulalongkorn University, said mainland Southeast Asia had traditionally never had a perception of national borders.

People in the region crossed natural barriers to associate socially and culturally before borderlines were drawn by colonising powers.

A hundred years ago, to the west of Thailand, or Siam as it was then, Britain was demarcating the border with Burma, while France was busily doing the same with its colonies to the east.

As a result, the countries in this region were born as the states, following the modern definition. But they came with borders which had no regard for the social and cultural relationships of people in the areas, the professor said.

A highly spiritual place like Preah Vihear was not exempted from demarcation, even though it was the centre of spiritual gatherings for people whose nationalities could hardly be identified.

Historian Dhida Saraya, who has been studying ancient cities in the region and is the author of Khao Phra Viharn,said the sanctuary was built over a thousand years ago by ancient Khmer Kings to worship Hindu gods. But more significantly, it symbolised attempts to blend old beliefs of different groups of people in the adjacent areas. People were united and the new cult of Devaraja, under which the king is regarded as god, was promoted. It then spread to other regions.

During the disputes over ownership of Preah Vihear in the mid 1900s, the discussion centred largely on where it was located – in Thailand or Cambodia?

In 1959, Cambodia took the dispute to the International Court of Justice. In 1962, the court ruled the sanctuary was under Cambodia’s sovereignty, leaving some room for arguments about the surrounding land, where the border between the two countries was not settled.

Ms Dhida said that in order to manage cultural property, the parties need to think of a ”cultural boundary”, especially in a situation where physical boundaries are unclear.

With the recognition of a cultural boundary, the parties would be better able to to see through other obstacles and work together in preserving the cultural heritage.

She said the Unesco should pay more attention to this aspect to help avoid possible conflict between Thailand and Cambodia.

”According to the evidence so far, people in this area do not associate or disassociate only by the determination of borderlines.

”They have a shared cultural heritage and this should be regarded, especially when the area will be nominated as a World Heritage site,” said Ms Dhida. ”How can culture be identified by nationalities and borders?”

The Thai working group has put together a plan under which the two countries would jointly restore the area, the director of the Archaeology Office, Tharapong Srisuchart, said.

They were awaiting Cambodia’s response to the plan, he said.

The next meeting of the World Heritage Committee is set for the middle of this year in Canada. Many people expect that Cambodia’s proposal for World Heritage status for Preah Vihear will be accepted.

Few local people, if any, would welcome the disruption that could follow this as the two countries again dispute ownership of the land, along with the likely closure of the border.

”People normally cross back and forth through the forest and the fields to visit their relatives here and there,” said another Thai forest ranger.

”We here don’t acknowledge the borderline.”

Meanwhile, Uncle Wan still draws his bow across his fiddle strings every morning, and the sweet sound swells into the peace that pervades Preah Vihear, which, in happier times, was there for all people.


Related Books:
Art & Architecture of Cambodia (World of Art) by H. I. Jessup
Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples, Fifth Edition by D. Rooney and P. Danford
Angkor: A Tour of the Monuments by T. Zephir and L. Invernizzi
Cambodian Architecture: Eighth to Thirteenth Centuries (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik) by J. Dumarcay and P. Royere

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About the Author

Noel Tan ()

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

Website: http://www.SoutheastAsianArchaeology.com/about/

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