Preah Vihear: An Overview

Bangkok Post carried a feature yesterday about the history of the disputed Preah Vihear temple as well as a history of the dispute.

Preah Vihear Map, Bangkok Post 22 May 2008

A Fine Line
Bangkok Post, 22 May 2008

A fine line
The sovereignty dispute over sacred site Preah Vihear continues
STORY BY PICHAYA SVASTI, PHOTOS COURTESY OF MUANG BORAN PUBLISHING HOUSE

Forty-six years ago, the World Court ruled that Preah Vihear, or Prasat Phra Viharn, is under Cambodian sovereignty.

But the significance of Preah Vihear lies beyond the tug-of-war match that Thailand and Cambodia have engaged in over it. The ancient temple is an historical symbol of interrelationships among different peoples and beliefs. It also represents a social and cultural history of mankind.

“Preah Vihear belongs to neither Cambodia nor Thailand – it belongs to sacred powers. It has been a holy place for pilgrimage,” said anthropologist and archaeologist Srisakra Vallibhotama.

According to him, Preah Vihear, or Sri Sikharesvara, has been an area for people from both sides to perform rituals.

Watershed lines were traditionally considered by ancient people as no man’s land, belonging to no one. Crossing the areas required the performing of rituals.

Established in the reign of Cambodian King Yasovarman (889-900) under the Devaraja (divine kingship) Cult, Preah Vihear stands on the Peuy Ta Di cliff of the Phra Viharn Mountain. The mountain is part of the Phanom Dong Rek Range that lies between the Lower Khmer Plain and the Korat Plateau.

Those who wanted to cross the Lower Khmer Plain and the Korat Plateau needed to perform or attend rituals. Sanctuaries were built as homes to spirits called Phi Ton Nam (watershed spirits) and also served as unofficial border posts.

In ancient times, kings and peoples paid homage to the spirits there. Phra Viharn Mountain was believed to be home to Phi Ton Nam and then to a god who safeguarded local people.

Historian Dhida Saraya writes in the book Preah Vihear (Sri Sikharesvara) that the Khmer kings built the sanctuary, but the sanctuary embraces different peoples and different beliefs. Hence, the true meaning and significance of Phra Viharn mountain is universal.

Prasat Phra Viharn, as a pilgrimage site, has been a universally and internationally sacred place. Several great Khmer kings established there the power of Shiva, the Universal God, over the local deities and ancestors of the peoples.

According to her book, during the reign of King Suryavarman I (1010-1050), ancestral worship and animism were central beliefs of the Devaraja Cult. The king established a link between himself, as the God King, and Sri Sikharesvara of Phra Viharn Mountain.

King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) extended and centralised the Sri Sikharesvara Sanctuary, making the temple the core of the state cult, the Devaraja, and the ritual centre of ancestral worship.

It became customary to pay homage ceremonially to the Kamaratengjagata Sri Sikharesvara at the same time the farmers celebrated their annual festival.

According to Srisakra, people from both sides came to Preah Vihear to perform rituals, as they do to this very day. Therefore, he wonders why France believed the sanctuary belonged to Cambodia.

“The troublemaker was France, as they introduced the concept of borders. Ancient people just looked for a symbol before crossing from one zone to another but France drew the line for us to accept,” the archaeologist said.

To survive colonisation, Siam opted for Western knowledge and, hence, fell into the trappings of thoughts and theories set by the superpowers.

As long as Thailand sanctions France’s interpretation that any site with Khmer inscriptions belongs to the ancient Khmer empire, there will be no solution, he noted.

“It was France who started circulating the story that Angkor was the centre of civilisation and any land with Khmer inscriptions was under the Khmer empire. This model was created by France and accepted by us,” the academic added.

According to him, English professor O. W. Wolters at Cornell University, New York, analysed inscriptions and found that Southeast Asian empires were not centralised states but were instead regulated under the Mandala system that observed Indian traditions. They were a network of big and small regions which revered the king of kings, known as Jakrapatdiraj or Rajathiraj.

Siamese kings loved Laotian and Khmer royals like their own relatives and some Cambodian kings were educated in the Siamese court.

“In fact, the Thai-Khmer relations were not heirarchical but were instead based on intermarriage,” he noted.

However, imperialist countries ignored the Mandala system in this region and introduced European-style political and administrative structures to manipulate the Asian royals and the elite class.

They also exercised another tool – border demarcation – during conflict with other Southeast Asian countries. Maps became major evidence for making agreements or claims under laws, Srisakra said.

He pointed out that Thailand lost Preah Vihear to Cambodia because Siam had recognised the French map, which drew the sanctuary within Cambodian.

In 1904, Siam failed to send representatives to border demarcation surveys conducted by France. This allowed France to include Phra Viharn in the map, made by France and Cambodia, which was shown to Siam in 1907, even though it went against the principle of watershed lines.

Based on the watershed line theory, Phra Viharn Mountain lies on Thai territory. According to the French map, the mountain is located within the Cambodian border.

To prove that the Phra Viharn sanctuary compound, from the foot of the mountain to the top, is in Thai territory, just pour water from the top of the mountain and see on which side it drains. The fact is that the water flows towards Korat Plateau and to the Lam Trao reservoir in Si Sa Ket, Srisakra noted.

In 1959, Cambodia took the dispute to the World Court. It presented the map charted by France under the Treaties of 1904 and 1907 as major evidence.

Another substantial piece of evidence was a group photo of the French Governor of Kampongthom, some French officials in uniform and Siam’s Prince Damrong, standing near a French flag being flown at full mast in the Phra Viharn compound. In 1929, Prince Damrong, then the president of the Royal Academy and a former interior minister, visited a number of historical sites in Si Sa Ket, including Prasat Phra Viharn.

On June 15, 1962, the World Court ruled that the ruins of Prasat Phra Viharn are under Cambodian sovereignty on the grounds that Thailand never lodged a protest against the said map. Nevertheless, the court ruling left some room for argument on the surrounding land where the border was not settled.

In his interview with Matichon Daily on January 9, 1992, MR Seni Pramoj, the lawyer who handled the case for Thailand, said, “There is still some misunderstanding that the whole Phra Viharn Mountain belongs to Cambodia. This is not so. The World Court did not pass such a judgement. The World Court only passed a decision to return the right of possession over the sanctuary and the surrounding area, not the whole mountain.”

The controversy erupted again after Cambodia, during last year’s Unesco conference in New Zealand, lodged a motion to nominate Preah Vihear as a new World Heritage site. Until now, the nomination has been deadlocked. However, a decision is expected from the World Heritage Committee within the next month.

Tharapong Srisuchat, director of the Fine Arts Department’s Office of Archaeology, said the Thai side is trying, through diplomatic procedures, to push for mutual collaboration in nominating Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site because the World Court’s ruling covers only the sanctuary, not the mountain.

According to him, each World Heritage site must consist of its nucleus, core zone and buffer zone, which should be circular, but Preah Vihear in Cambodia’s proposal is in the shape of a fan with the core zone at its lowest end.

The temple’s surroundings located in Thai territory, including the site of ancient communities at the foot of the Phnom Dong Rek mountain range, stone carvings on the Pha Mor I-Daeng cliff, stone-cutting sources and the Sa Trao reservoir, are also important and should go together with the sanctuary in the nomination.

He pointed out that Cambodia’s attempts to register only the sanctuary could damage the historical value of Preah Vihear and spoil management plans.

However, Thai authorities and scholars are still hoping for a happy ending.

Srisakra suggested Thailand to negotiate with Cambodia for the declaring of the disputed area as a no man’s land and the sharing of benefits if it becomes a World Heritage site.

“Thailand must be ready to discuss the matter, and have enough evidence to show that Preah Vihear cannot be an outstanding World Heritage site without its surroundings,” he said.

CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS RELATING TO THE PREAH VIHEAR DISPUTE

1833 to 1846Siam and Vietnam were engaged in a 14-year war known as the Annam-Siam War, resulting in Siam reasserting sovereignty over Cambodia. In the early Bangkok Period, Cambodia had been under Thai control. During the reigns of King Rama III and IV, Siamese kings crowned Cambodian kings.

1861France ruled over Saigon and South Vietnam, and became interested in Laos and Cambodia.

December 7, 1863A treaty was signed between Siam and Cambodia, verifying Cambodia’s status as a dependent state of Siam.

France invited Siam to attend the coronation of Prince Narodom.

1867Siam and France signed an agreement that all of Cambodia, except for Seam Reap, Battambong and Srisophon, was under French protection.

1893France seized the east bank of the Mekong River and forced Siam to sign a pact granting possession.

1907Siam and France signed another treaty under which Siam had to yield the right of possession over Seam Reap, Battambong and Srisophon to France in exchange for the re-acquisition of Dan Sai, Trat and all islands ranging from Laem Ling to Kood Island.

1929Prince Damrong visited a number of historical sites in Si Sa Ket. At Prasat Phra Viharn, he was welcomed by the French Governor of Kampongthom and some French officials in uniform. A French flag was raised in the compound. This incident was later claimed as evidence in World Court.

1939Luang Vichitr Vadakarn, the director-general of the Fine Arts Department, inspected the map of the area and discovered that a stream, instead of the watershed line, was used as the boundary. The government, headed by Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsonggram, tried to reach agreement with the French government in Indochina. The Thai government made an announcement and openly put the area under its protection on October 11, 1940.

1940The Fine Arts Department registered Prasat Phra Viharn as a national historical monument. The announcement was made once again in the Royal Gazette on December 22, 1959.

1941Thailand was allied with Japan in World War Two under the Tokyo Pact, and regained all lands lost to France during the reign of King Rama V. After the defeat of Japan, Thailand had to return these to France.

1949France raised the issue of the Phra Viharn Mountain, protesting Thailand’s occupation of the site. After this, Thai-Cambodian relations deteriorated steadily.

1958Cambodia made several claims that the Phra Viharn Mountain belonged to it. In August, Bangkok declared a state of emergency in six provinces along the Cambodian border.

December 1, 1958Cambodia terminated diplomatic ties with Thailand.

October 6, 1959The Cambodian government took the case to the World Court.

June 15, 1962The World Court handed down a ruling that Preah Vihear was under Cambodian sovereignty.

July 15, 1962Thailand evacuated everything from Phra Viharn Mountain, including a Thai flag placed on the cliff.

1970-1975Cambodia re-established diplomatic ties with Thailand and opened Preah Vihear as tourist attraction.

1975-1991The civil war in Cambodia became a barrier to visits to Preah Vihear.

1992Cambodia reopened Preah Vihear as a tourist spot after civil war.

2007Cambodia, during the Unesco conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, filed a motion to nominate Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site.

Related Books:
- Preah Vihear (River Books Guides)
- The Preah Vihear case and the Sino-Indian boundary question
- The temple of Phra Viharn: A study of the Buddhist countries’ approach to international law
- The Civilization of Angkor
- Angkor Cities and Temples

2 comments to Preah Vihear: An Overview

  • B&S

    Written by The Phnom Penh Post
    Thursday, 10 July 2008

    Communique from Norodom Sihanouk
    Phnom Penh, 8 July 2008

    I. Certain journalists are writing that the main entrance to the Preah Vihear temple faces Thailand and not Cambodia.

    II. The Thais have said, say and have written and write that one of the “proofs” of Thai ownership of Preah Vihear is constituted by the fact that access to the temple is infinitely more easy from the Thai side rather than from the Cambodian side.

    III. These journalists and these Thais seem to ignore the following historic facts, ones which amply prove that the mountain and the temple of Preah Vihear are 100% Cambodian and belong 100% to Cambodia.

    a/. The construction (10th and 11th centuries) of Preah Vihear by two successive Khmer Kings and is a purely Khmer work.

    b/. The mountain and the temple of Preah Vihear could be found, during the 10th and 11th centuries, “very much in the interior” of Kampuchea, in the Khmer Empire, of which the borders extended for hundreds of kilometers, to the north, the east and west, much further than the current Cambodian borders with Thailand and Laos.

    As a consequence, the mountain and the Preah Vihear temple could be found not on the Cambodia-Siam (Thai) border but “deep in the interior” of the Kingdom (of the Khmer Empire) and the “main entrance” of Preah Vihear “looked” not towards Siam (Thailand) but to Kampuchea.

    c/. The International Court in the Hague, which in 1962, rendered justice to Cambodia, did not ignore all this, and let me, once again, offer them a respectful and admiring homage.

    d/. Thanks to Khmer Sovereignty and the Khmer empire (Angkorian in particular) , present day Thailand is very rich in Angkorian style Khmer temples and monuments.

    [It is] absolutely wrong and gives proof to the meanness, which, in Thailand, causes to Cambodia and its people undeserved and anachronistic troubles concerning the temple of Preah Vihear, instead of devoting ourselves to the harmonious and fruitful development of our friendship and our (authentic) brotherhood (Thai-Cambodian).

    (signed)
    Norodom Sihanouk

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