Domestic politics driving border row

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 May, 2011, 12:00am


Could two little-known temple complexes on the Thai-Cambodian border spark the fiercest clashes between the two neighbours in years? Hidden deep in the jungle off the main tourist trail, the two temples - Ta Kwai and Ta Muen Tom in Thai, or Ta Krabei and Ta Moan in Khmer - might have set the scene for the eruption of violent conflict last month.

Until now, the two countries have failed to conclude even a temporary ceasefire. Thailand blamed Cambodia for being insincere and untrustworthy. Meanwhile, Cambodia condemned the Thai military for wanting this war to avert an election at home. While Cambodia has repeatedly urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to intervene, Thailand has brushed aside the grouping's offer to mediate.

The situation is getting more complicated since the two temple ruins have been dragged into the border conflict.

Estimated to be at least 800 years old, they are located 15 kilometres apart and around 150 kilometres west of the Preah Vihear temple, which has traditionally been at the centre of bilateral unrest.

Both Thailand and Cambodia have laid claim to the ruins. The two ancient temples are among several elegant Khmer architectural structures built for Hindu deities. Historians believe that both might have been constructed around the same time as the Preah Vihear, in the 11th century.

Emotions run deep in both countries. Particularly in Thailand, the discourse of 'lost territories' gave birth to nationalist forces that drove the country into deadly conflict with Cambodia. Such discourse has been used as a political tool by certain groups, including the Thai military.

But there is a real danger in exploiting the border issue for gain in domestic politics. While Cambodia is the legal owner of the Preah Vihear, the area being contested is actually the immediate vicinity of the temple, an area of 4.6 square kilometres. With mutual hostilities, border demarcation will not be completed any time soon.

Faced with yet another complicated border issue, both countries could head towards more fatal clashes. Already, a group of Thai nationalists have requested that the military seize Ta Kwai/Ta Krabei. 'Thailand must not allow history to repeat itself,' they said, referring to the loss of Preah Vihear to Cambodia in 1962 at the International Court of Justice.

As for Cambodia, there are incentives in combining the dispute over the two temples with the larger bilateral conflict with Thailand. A process of depicting Thailand as an aggressive neighbour is under way in Cambodia. It seeks to strengthen the position of Prime Minister Hun Sen as he takes on the role of a strong leader who stands up to foreign aggressors.

But are Thailand and Cambodia ready to engage in a full-blown war over the temples? They must ask themselves if they are willing to accept what will be devastating consequences. Recovering lost temples this way will bring the loss of many lives on both sides.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies