On 51st ICJ Anniversary, Preah Vihear Less Politically Divisive

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON – On the 51st anniversary of the ICJ’s ruling of June 15, 1962, I ask where is the Preah Vihear temple dispute today?

The ancient Hindu-Khmer* temple of Preah Vihear is once again ‘on trial’ at the International Court of Justice earlier this year. Exactly two month before the 51st anniversary of its 1962 ruling, the court held another hearing right around Khmer/Thai new year on the request for reinterpretation of that ruling. The request was made by Cambodia, following a series of border conflicts with Thailand between 2008 and 2011 subsequent to the enlisting of Preah Vihear temple as world heritage site.

The court is expected to make a landmark ruling in October. The big question is what the ruling will be. But an even bigger question is how the two countries – especially Thailand and the Thai military – will react to the ruling.

The good news is that – at least on the Cambodian side – local politics appear to be out of the picture, at least until the October ruling. Although some domestic dynamics in both countries are similar to the period leading up to Cambodia’s 2008 national elections, the differences are significant, especially the current Thai government’s much more favorable attitude towards Cambodia and Mr. Hun Sen. This has especially manifested itself in Thailand’s recent denial of entry to opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Even though the ICJ hearing occured just over three months before Cambodia’s national elections on July 28 and the pending case extending over into the post-election period, the hearing and 51st anniversary has officially been kept low, perhaps also out of the need to show impartiality during the high-profile World Heritage Committee gathering starting tomorrow.

A final factor is that unlike in 2008, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has by now established itself as a legitimate protector of the country’s sovereignty, a legitimacy it has lacked and some still see as lacking. And according to analyst Chheang Vannarith, the disappearance of Preah Vihear in election politics is also due to Cambodia’s general confidence after the ICJ’s April hearing on a generally unifying issue for Cambodians. Here’s my Skype interview with him, in Khmer.

Back in the last election in 2008, the Preah Vihear dispute eventually became somewhat intertwined with pre-election politics in Cambodia and helped set a string of events that eventually let to Thai-Cambodia border skirmishes. This was how I viewed the situation back in November 2009, after the first round of border clashes between the two countries. In hindsight, however, the Preah Vihear dispute then was ironically also the most unifying issues in country in decades. It unified Cambodians across political lines both inside and outside the country.

Preah Vihear concert in 2008: A rare large-scale re-introduction of formerly banned nationalistic song “Pongsavadar Khmer” or “Khmer Chronicle”, something previously unthought of by the CPP.

The bad news, however, according to the same observer, is that there is no foreseeable ‘good’ or ‘win-win’ scenarios yet following the ICJ ruling in October, making things less predictable.

Since Preah Vihear is likely not a factor this year’s Cambodian politics, where attention has shifted east, the likely scenario in the run-up to the ruling remains one of calm like since current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to power. Until the ICJ ruling, and thereafter, it seems the key player and determinant in the dispute will be the Thai military.

*I use the term “Hindu-Khmer” temple rather than “Hindu temple” or “Khmer temple” to more accurately describe the nature of the ancient temples build by the Khmer Empire. It appears that the term “Hindu temple” is mostly used in Thailand to maximize the religious nature of it and ignoring the Khmer identity of the temple. In Cambodia, the temples -including Angkor Wat – are simply known as “Khmer temple” to refer to its cultural heritage, where Hinduism is already understood as a part of Khmer identity.

Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly suggests that this year was the 50th anniversary rather than 51st anniversary.

Victory for Yingluck, Victory for Border Peace?

Yingluck Shinawatra, the opposition Pheu Thai Party's candidate for prime minister and youngest sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, gestures as she attends a press conference at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday, July 3, 2011. (Photo: AP / Vincent Yu)

Yingluck Shinawatra, the opposition Pheu Thai Party’s candidate for prime minister and youngest sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, gestures as she attends a press conference at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday, July 3, 2011. (Photo: AP / Vincent Yu)

Soeung Sophat, Washington, VOA Crossroads Cambodia Blog, July 9, 2011

Optimism about a peaceful settlement along the Thai-Cambodia border after Pheu Thai’s landslide victory is not shared by everyone.

The Cambodian government was quick to welcome the Party’s election victory and is confident the long-running dispute can now be settled more peacefully in a “new era”. The goodwill was returned by Yingluck Shinawatra, the head of the victorious party and sister to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Yingluck said her new government would make restoring relations with neighboring countries a “priority.”

This restoration process may be easier said than done. The border dispute is driven by nationalism and remains entangled in Thai domestic politics. Powerful actors will resist any “U-turn” in policy toward Cambodia. One of these is the Thai military, who, according to John Ciorciari, “will likely oppose a precipitous shift in policy from Bangkok.” Nationalist groups, particularly the People’s Alliance for Democracy, are determined to continue the opposition to any thawed relations with Phnom Penh, as they have done in the past.

Cambodia’s main opposition party cautiously welcomed the more amicable climate, saying that that international involvement remains crucial to solving the border dispute. Analysts agree, saying that Indonesia, as current head of Asean, should be keen on seizing momentumand getting the two countries to return to negotiations.

There is no question that the dispute has been internationalized, with both countries awaiting another ruling from the International Court of Justice on July 18. But as Cambodians are celebrating the third anniversary of the Preah Vihear temple’s listing this week, it remains to be seen whether the current peace at the border will hold, for good.

Deconstructing the Current Cambodian-Thai Diplomatic Dispute: A Cambodian Perspective

Original blog post of November 10, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO – Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have now moved beyond Preah Vihearand become increasingly more complicated. Yet, things may as well be straightforward, or so it seems from this very insightful piece by the Asia Times’ Craig Guthrie:

Hun Sen’s main domestic opponent says the premier’s overtures to Thaksin are not motivated by scoring political points or a desire to uphold Khmer nationalism, but instead are due to pressure being exerted on him by Vietnam, the invading nation which initially installed him as premier in 1985 and which the opposition still claims has influence over the CCP government.

Sam Rainsy has called the argument between Thaksin and Abhisit a “political game” to turn the Cambodian public’s attention to the west, in the direction of Thailand, while ignoring the east, towards Vietnam. Antagonism among Cambodians – over inward migration and alleged land grabbing – is much higher towards Vietnam, which occupied Cambodia between 1979 and 1989, than towards Thailand, which has made less controversial service-sector inroads into the country.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Hun Sen is trying to show that he is the defender of the national interests of Cambodia and that Thailand is the real enemy of Cambodia and not Vietnam,” said United States-based Cambodian economist Naranhkiri Tith.

Although the above analysis may not fully explain the current “political game,” it does compellingly show that the current ‘nationalist double standard’ exercised by the CPP government is partly rooted in the Party’s owning its existence to Vietnam’s support as well as its distrust of Thailand during the 1980s and 1990s Cambodian Cold War politics. Nevertheless, it is likely that the motivations behind the current moves are as much the CCP’s different historic relations with the two neighbors as they are a need to uphold Khmer nationalism in the eyes of an increasingly changing domestic demography.

With the memories and legacy of the Khmer Rouge–the demise of which is a major source of the CCP’s political legitimacy–gradually fading away, particularly amongst young and educated Cambodians, Khmer nationalism is increasingly becoming a substitute tool for political and moral legitimacy. Post-Khmer Rouge-born Cambodians may already make up the majority of the voting population and certainly will in the near future. To this audience, the destruction of the Khmer Rouge means little, if anything, compared to job security, better education, better health care, or particularly post-conflict national pride and nation-(re)building.

Khmer nationalism has traditionally included the centuries-old process of ‘othering’–the creation of group enemies–of the neighboring Thais and Vietnamese to produce a sense and defense of ‘Khmer-ness’. With some exceptions, politicized animosities against the two more powerful neighbors have often been an unbalanced either-or affair; that is, either turning more East (against Vietnam) or West (against Thailand) depending on what Cambodian regime is in power and which foreign patron it is ‘indebted’ to. Such animosity is practically non-existent against neighboring Laos, a country similarly squeezed between the two powerful neighbors. In contemporary Cambodian political context, is seems likely that more problems would arise with Thailand than Vietnam if the CCP rules, while the opposite–more antagonistic policies towards Vietnam and warmer relations with Thailand– would ensue should the current opposition party come to power. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s recent political stunt at the Vietnamese border and the consequences thereof highlight what can be expected of Cambodia’s domestic-cum-neighborly politics in the coming years.

As a matter of nationalist politics, the current ruling CCP has few other choices than to exploit its historical distrust of Thailand. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, it is also trying to counter any perceived double standard in order to be seen as the ‘real guarantor’ of the nation’s independence in the eyes of its people. It comes as no surprise, then, that Cambodia’s information minister recently led a Cambodian delegation to what is known by Khmers as ‘Kampuchea Krom’ or ‘Lower Cambodia’ in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta territory to showcase that the CPP also cares about ethnic Khmers there and can also ‘tackle’ Vietnam, although in a much more amicable way.

What Guthrie describes as “domestic political spat that has spilled over into international relations” and which initially was applied to Thai internal politics in relation to the Preah Vihear dispute and now also suitably applied to Cambodian politics, is potentially very destructive politics that comes at a heavy price for peoples living along the Cambodia-Thailand and Cambodia-Vietnam borders as well as a blow to the ASEAN spirit altogether. Concerned politicians should keep these consequences in mind now that it is their capacity to reconstruct a better politics for their country and the region.