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Preah Vihear dispute: It matters that we understand the history

These days, it is vexing to listen to all the arguments over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple, most of which are constructed on and around unfamiliarity and false information. Many people resort to name calling and ad hominem attacks, labelling opponents as "traitors" or "ultra conservative right wing group". Some have gone as far as to say it is no big deal if Thailand were to lose a couple of square kilometres to Cambodia, if things got to that point.



It is shameful that some Thais could entertain such a defeatist attitude without bothering to study the case thoroughly. China and Japan are butting head over ownership of a group of uninhibited islets in the East China Sea called Senkaku (in Japan) or Daioyu (in China), with a total land area of seven square kilometres. The Spratly Islands, a group of 750 atolls, reefs, islets, cays and islands, altogether less than four square kilometres of land, are the centre of a heated dispute between the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia (partially), and Brunei (partially). Around the world, even between the United States and Canada, there are more than 220 territorial disputes that have been going on for years without any side conceding lying down. None.

It is not inaccurate to say that the Preah Vihear territorial dispute is the outcome of a series of unfortunate and unintended gaffes by Thailand. But that is not the same as saying the territory rightfully and without an iota of doubt belongs to Cambodia. Let's examine how it began and how the current escalation of the conflict erupted.

Back in 1904, Thailand (then Siam) and the French Colonial Authorities, the occupying regime in Cambodia formed a joint commission to demarcate the border between the two countries. They agreed in principle that the survey to produce the topographical map would be based on the watershed line of the Dangrek Mountain range. However, when the map was drawn up in 1907 and sent to Siam for approval, it showed a demarcation that preposterously deviated from the watershed line. At that time, Siam did not act, either in approval or disapproval of the proposed map. This was cited by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its ruling in 1962:

"Since there was no reaction on the part of the Siamese authorities, either then or for many years, they must be held to have acquiesced. The maps were moreover communicated to the Siamese members of the Mixed Commission, who said nothing; to the Siamese minister of the interior, Prince Damrong, who thanked the French minister in Bangkok for them; and to the Siamese provincial governors, some of whom knew of Preah Vihear. If the Siamese authorities accepted the Annex I map without investigation, they could not now plead any error vitiating the reality of their consent.

"The Siamese government and later the Thai government had raised no query about the Annex I map prior to negotiations with Cambodia in Bangkok in 1958. But in 1934-1935 a survey had established a divergence between the map line and the true line of the watershed, and other maps had been produced showing the temple as being in Thailand.

"Thailand had nevertheless continued to use and indeed to publish maps showing Preah Vihear as lying in Cambodia. Moreover, in the course of the negotiations for the 1925 and 1937 Franco-Siamese treaties, which confirmed the existing frontiers, and in 1947 in Washington before the Franco-Siamese Conciliation Commission, it would have been natural for Thailand to raise the matter: she did not do so. The natural inference was that she had accepted the frontier at Preah Vihear as it was drawn on the map, irrespective of its correspondence with the watershed line."

In his 2010 article "Forbid Me To Speak, So I Write" on the disputes, Dr Virapongse Ramangura described his firsthand conversation with M.R. Seni Pramoj, head of the Thai legal team to the ICJ, which resulted in the court's ruling in 1962 that Preah Vihear was in Cambodian territory. The main problem for the Thai legal team was the fact that Thailand did not dispute the 1907 French map for more than 10 years, so it was taken as acquiescence to the map.

Dr Virapongse described accurately the ensuing contention that the map lied on the interpretation of what constituted the temple as a single entity. The Thai interpretation puts the structure of the temple, and purely the stone structure, in Cambodian territory, but the areas surrounding the temple lie within Thai territory. Naturally, the Cambodian reading was different and it argued that both the temple and surrounding area were within its border.

Cambodia's multi-front offensive to put the lingering border disputes to rest once and for all caught Thailand by surprise, as the latter found out about Cambodia's intention by accident. By that time, Cambodia was well ahead of the game when it filed for the World Heritage inscription with Unesco, describing the site as including not just the temple structure, but the 4.6 square kilometres surrounding it, while encouraging settlements of its veterans in these areas.

Noppadol Pattama - the foreign minister at the time - flew to Paris and negotiated with Cambodia and Unesco to separate the 4.6 square kilometres from the temple structure, and maintained this is the "overlapping disputed" area. However, Cambodia simultaneously with its Unesco filing also pushed the issue at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It failed the first time, as the United States vetoed the inclusion of the issue on the agenda, but Cambodia succeeded at a second attempt because this time the US withheld its objection.

Now, the territorial disputes between Thailand and Cambodia are on the UNSC table. This situation has immense ramifications because if Thailand does not comply with the forthcoming ICJ verdict, despite the fact that, in principle, it is non-binding, Cambodia can and will effectively play its UN card, which could lead to a UN sanction.

It is sad that these territorial disputes have became the football in the games played by our own various political factions. Nationalism is about keeping a cool head, and the wisdom to see clearly where our best national interest lies. Nationalism is about being unified in defending that interest.

We cannot rectify past mistakes, but we can stop ourselves from making more. Our forefathers fought with everything they had for the right for all of us to be here, as a free country; we must not betray them with our hot heads, rash decisions, internal divisions, and losers' mentality.

This is the time to heed the Japanese proverb that "Rust only comes from within."


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