On November 11, 2013, the International Court of Justice at The Hague rendered a decision on the longstanding dispute between Thailand and Cambodia regarding the Preah Vihear temple, ruling that the temple and much of the surrounding grounds belonged to Cambodia. This brings to at least a temporary close a conflict that has lasted decades and resulted in many deaths.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Preah Vihear (“sacred shrine” in Sanskrit) is situated at the top of Phra Wihan Hill in the Phanom Dong Rak Mountains, with a spectacular view overlooking the nearby plains of both Cambodia and Thailand. The complex was probably begun in the late ninth or early tenth century, and was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Most of the construction took place during the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I (1002-50) and Suryavarman II (1113-50). In later centuries when Hinduism became less popular in that area, the temple was adapted to Buddhism.
The complex is composed of a series of sanctuaries, along with courtyards and libraries, linked by a system of pavements and staircases. Approaching the main sanctuary, one must pass by five gopuras, or entrance towers. One features a grand depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (a story also depicted in a huge, famous bas-relief at Angkor Wat). Like so many ancient Khmer temples, Preah Vihear was meant to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods.
After being more or less forgotten for centuries, Preah Vihear became a point of controversy at the onset of the twentieth century. When Thailand and Cambodia worked out their border in 1904, the Phanon Dong Rak mountain range was to serve as a demarcation line, placing most of the Preah Vihear complex in Thailand. But when French officers drew up a map of the border, for reasons unknown the temple was placed on the Cambodian side.
Thai forces occupied the temple after French troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1954. Cambodia protested, taking their claim to the International Court of Justice, which in 1962 used that French map from decades before – which, they said, Thailand had not protested in the ensuing decades – to rule that the Preah Vihear temple complex was part of Cambodia. Thailand’s government reacted angrily, and mass protests ensued in the country. Eventually they backed down and allowed Cambodia to take possession of the site officially.
When Cambodia’s civil war began in 1970, the opposition to the Khmer Rouge used Preah Vihear as a stronghold, only giving it up in 1975 (the last part of Cambodia to fall). For many years thereafter access to the temple was irregular as sporadic fighting continued. Fairly substantial military clashes between Thai and Cambodian forces occurred in 2008 and 2011, killing dozens. Gunfire from both sides did some damage to the Preah Vihear structures, and thousands of nearby villagers were forced to flee their homes. Each side blamed the other for the damage. In 2011 the International Court of Justice ordered both sides to remove their troops as further discussions ensued about where the border would fall. Finally, on November 11, 2013, the ICJ ruled that the temple and the promontory around it belonged to Cambodia, and that Thai security forces should leave.
The decision was of course welcomed in Cambodia. “This is the victory of all the nation and the reward to the political maturity of the current Royal government of Cambodia,” Information Minister Khieu Kanharith posted to Facebook. With the country’s recent history of genocide and civil war, Cambodia’s Khmer civilization of centuries ago, represented in complexes like Preah Vihear, is an important rallying point for the nation.
Thailand has other political issues on its mind right now, especially the ongoing protests surrounding the self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. “For Thailand, the ICJ decision on Preah Vihear comes at a critical juncture,” Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote in an email quoted by the Phnom Penh Post. “Any change in the status quo would play into the hands and perhaps become the key catalyst of the anti-Thaksin/anti-government protesters in Bangkok.”
While both sides have officially accepted the ICJ decision, there is still fear among many who live nearby that hostilities, or even war, between the two countries, could break out. According to the Thai newspaper The Nation, one Thai nationalist group, the Thai Patriotic Network, has said it rejects any ICJ judgment and has already petitioned the court to have the case thrown out. Even so, nearby Thai villagers who had fled their homes because of the ongoing fighting have started to return. Both countries have expressed an interest in working together to develop Preah Vihear further as a tourist destination.
BBC: “Thailand protesters back on the streets” (Nov. 26, 2013)
Phnom Penh Post: “Preah Vihear legend inspires” (Nov. 18, 2013)
The Nation: “Govt. urges restraint on Preah Vihear ruling” (Nov. 13, 2013)
CNN: “Thai villagers return after verdict on disputed Preah Vihear temple” (Nov. 12, 2013)
Bangkok Post: “ICJ backs Cambodia’s claim to Preah Vihear temple promontory” (Nov. 11, 2013)
Los Angeles Times: “Preah Vihear temple grounds belong to Cambodia, U.N. court rules” (Nov. 11, 2013)
BBC: “Preah Vihear temple: Disputed land Cambodian, court rules” (Nov. 10, 2013)
Phnom Penh Post: “Preah Vihear watches, waits” (Nov. 10, 2013)
BBC: “Q&A: Thailand-Cambodia temple dispute” (Nov. 7, 2013)
UNESCO: “Temple of Preah Vihear”