Sdok Kok Thom & Preah Vihear: In Border Temples, Shared History, Acceptance?

Here is is my VOA interview with John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent and author of “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Text below.

The International Court of Justice is expected to rule over the disputed territories between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on Nov. 11. While the temple has seen tensions and armed conflicts over the years, another ancient Khmer border temple, Sdok Kok Thom, might serve as an example of how both nations can move beyond the conflicts of the past. John Burgess, a former Washington Post correspondent, has authored a book about the temple tilted “Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History.” Burgess tells VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat that while these border temples have been the cause of conflict, they can also be a source of shared history and mutual acceptance between Thailand and Cambodia.

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.

How Google Figured Out Khmer Translation

A screenshot of Google Translate page displaying the translation of "VOA" in both Khmer and English.

A screenshot of Google Translate page displaying the translation of “VOA” in both Khmer and English.

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, May 24, 2013

WASHINGTON — Editor’s note: Around Cambodian New Year last month, Google launched its online translation service for the Khmer language, making it the 66th language to be translatable on its service. Google says the launch is primarily aimed at making a vast amount of non-Khmer content on the Internet more accessible to Khmer speakers. Divon Lan, product manager of Google’s Next Wave Emerging Markets program, recently spoke to VOA Khmer’s Sophat Soeung by phone to explain what it means for the average Cambodian.

Listen to Full Interview: Divon Lan talks about Google Translate Khmer

You didn’t actually use translators to build this system. How did you actually build Khmer translation on Google?

Google Translate is actually machine translation. Basically, the way this works is we look at all the Khmer data that is out there, on the Web and so on. And we figure out automatically the language model. And that allows us to translate not only from English to Khmer but actually from any language to Khmer. Today there are 66 languages on Google Translate, so, for example, you can go to a Chinese website or a French website and get it translated to Khmer and understand what it says and vice versa. Foreigners from many countries can read Khmer text translated into their languages. Now bear in mind that the machine translation is still not at the level of human translation. If you use Google Translate, what we’re aiming for is that you will be able to get the general idea of what a piece of text says. It won’t be a word-to-word translation. That’s the downside.
At VOA Khmer we have two language websites, one in English and one in Khmer. Would that contribute to Google Translation because they basically have the same content? Is that the idea?

That’s the idea. We look at all the content that’s out there th​at is of that nature in two languages and looking at millions and millions of pages, and we try to figure out what the translation should be automatically using algorithms rather than humans.

A Cambodian student uses Google's new Khmer online translation service between Khmer and French. Google Translate released Khmer as its 66th language on its online translation service around Cambodian new year, 2013. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

A Cambodian student uses Google’s new Khmer online translation service between Khmer and French. Google Translate released Khmer as its 66th language on its online translation service around Cambodian new year, 2013. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

Khmer is the 66th language on Google Translate. It’s actually the last language of the (Lower) Mekong region, even after Lao. Is that because of the complexity of the Khmer language that it was released later on?

Yes, it’s partly because of the complexity. It’s partly because to create this machine, the “translation language model,” we need a fairly large amount of text available out there on the web. And Khmer is still, you know, the amount of text compared to other languages is still small if you compare it to other regional languages like Thai or Vietnamese. The amount of content in those languages is much bigger. We wanted to make sure that the quality meets our launch level, which is basically that you’d be able to understand more or less what an article is about although that translation is not perfect. The translation quality will improve over time. So the more people use it, the more people suggest corrections, and over time the quality will improve.

Actually the one language we launched just prior to Khmer was Lao, as you’ve mentioned. That’s also one of our most recent launches. And these languages are very similar in many of the difficulties that we face in translating. One of them is the fact that in Khmer and in Lao and in Thai, you don’t use white spaces to have a gap between words. So one of the challenges is just looking at Khmer text and figuring out where the word boundaries are, and the same challenge exists in Lao as well.

When you write in a language like English, you use a space between every word, whereas in Khmer the words are just stuck to each other. While a human reading Khmer can very easily tell the words apart, it’s actually quite difficult for a computer to understand where one word ends and a new word starts. One thing that makes it easier, by the way, is that Khmer has a unique script. So when we see Khmer letters in a document, we know for sure that’s Khmer, compared to Latin alphabets. Like you see a text, you’re not always sure if this is French or Italian or Spanish. It can be anything; they all use the same letters. For Khmer, if it is in Khmer, it’s Khmer. There’s no question. So that part makes it easy. And that’s the same for Lao and Thai.

Divon Lan, product manager of Google’s Next Wave Emerging Markets program, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

Divon Lan, product manager of Google’s Next Wave Emerging Markets program, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Courtesy of Divon Lan)

How long did it actually take you to build the Khmer translation and what was the most challenging aspect of doing that?

It took us a few good months, maybe even a year. And the challenges were really getting to a good enough level of quality, given the amount of Khmer text out there on the web is still relatively small. An additional challenge is that we found that actually people write Khmer words in many different ways. So there are a lot of people that don’t use a standard dictionary way to write a word. They just write it phonetically, and then we see many variants of different words, which of course adds another interesting technical challenge for us.

Who did you envision as your audience?

Our audience is primarily Cambodian. What we’ve seen in Cambodia is that the young and educated people in Phnom Penh are all using the Internet. But if you think about that, that’s only 5 percent or so of the population of the country. You have 90 to 95 percent of the people that are not using the Internet. Now there are many reasons why people are not using the Internet, like the cost of devices and things like that. But one of the top reasons in Cambodia is Khmer. Most Cambodians speak only Khmer, and I think it’s our duty as a technology industry—Google and other companies—to provide the world’s information to Cambodians in their language. The vast majority of content on the web is not in Khmer. It’s in English or other languages, and we think it’s critically important to give access to that information to all of the world’s information to Khmer-speakers, in their language. That’s the motivation here.

Some in our audience have asked if the Google Khmer translation is available on mobile.

Yes, it is.

A screenshot of Google Maps of Cambodia, displaying in the Khmer language on Friday, May 24, 2013.

A screenshot of Google Maps of Cambodia, displaying in the Khmer language on Friday, May 24, 2013.

Google Khmer was launched more than two weeks ago. What feedback you have gotten so far?

I think the feedback is extremely enthusiastic. I’m following the English-language media in Cambodia, and thanks to Google Translate I now can also follow the Khmer-language media, since I’m not a Khmer-speaker. I’m very excited to see the level of excitement out there. Obviously, there are also comments about the quality, which is to be expected, but I think everybody recognizes that this is really a big step for the Internet in Cambodia.

So this is the early beginning for Khmer Translation. What is the plan? What’s coming up related to this?

This is what we call an “Alpha version,” which means it is the very very first early version of that translation. We hope the quality will improve a lot. We’re investing more and more in Khmer. For example, Google Maps already shows place names in Khmer language. This happened a few months ago. I can’t provide specific details on future plans, but I can say that we’re definitely investing in the Khmer language, because our objective is really to get the world’s information to Cambodians. So every Cambodian—doesn’t matter their background, where they are, whether or not they speak other languages—they should be able to participate in this information revolution that we are in.

On a personal note, I’ll say that my wife is actually Khmer. And when I think about our mission in Cambodia—as Google and even as the technology industry—I always think about my mother-in-law, who is an intelligent, capable woman, but who, like most Cambodians, only speaks Khmer. And because of that, she is not able to access the Internet, access the information that’s out there. And it’s my personal mission to solve that problem. My mother-in-law should be able to use the Internet just like anybody else, in her own language.

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.