Preah Vihear Revisited
I’ve visited Preah Vihear a few times, once by motorbike in 2010 and once by bicycle in 2009. With or without the military presence, it remains one of my favorite temple sites in Cambodia.
Michael Hayes, the former editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, wrote a great article examining the latest flair-up of the Preah Vihear dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. He is dead on with his main point:
If the Thais want a protracted, bloody fight on their hands over the temple, they’ve got one. In the 20 years I’ve been in Cambodia the Preah Vihear issue is without question the only one I’ve seen that has united the entire nation. Cambodian TV stations have been running fundraisers off and on with donations large and small pouring in from all quarters for two years. Even the normally truculent Sam Rainsy Party and others in the opposition are fully on board.
On my first visit to Preah Vihear, I witnessed this unbelievable outpouring of nationalism as I cycled up the last 7km up on the mountain. Traffic on that tiny new road was dense, with the engines of flashy SUV’s and cheap motorbikes struggling to make the last bit of their long journey that started in different places of Cambodia. The SUVs were largely from Phnom Penh, which was to be expected but still interesting as it was at least a 8-12 hour drive at the time. I was more interested in the motorbikes with families and less-wealthy Khmer tourists. They had obviously spent a good deal more time and percentage of their income to come to Preah Vihear. Even more interesting, was that they brought bags of rice, clothing and other gifts for the soldiers, not unlike the baskets Cambodians typically purchase for monks during various holidays.
This was one of the few occasions I’ve seen in Cambodia where rich and poor actually seemed to mingle on equal terms. It was also one of the few times I saw Cambodians outwardly display their strong national pride – it was even beyond even the pride of Angkor Wat. The familiar Preah Vihear profile shot has surpassed Angkor Wat as the most ubiquitous emblem around the country; it’s on everything from visa forms, customs forms, private sector advertisements, tourism promotions posters, television teasers…
Even the soldiers I talked with, who are typically a pretty lethargic bunch, were comparatively focused and motivated. One of the higher-ups took me around the “front line”, proudly displaying the long line of trench networks, fortified turrets, and other defenses all pointed toward Thailand. When I asked how many soldiers were on the mountain, he said “Thousands, not including other people with guns.” I assume he was referring to the people drawn by the conflict to take up arms, camp on the mountain, and help the army. Or maybe he was just exaggerating for effect.
Granted, Hun Sen has stoked the conflict with his rhetoric and used it to help bolster his own power and distract people from other critical issues in the country (land-grabbing, illegal evictions, human rights abuses, widespread corruption, depressing environmental destruction). However, as Michael Hayes points out, Thailand is more or else doing the same and exporting its own internal political strife to distract Thais from their own increasingly fractured society. The issue has effectively resolved according to the international community (see the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling and 2008 UNESCO certification). The violence and frankly, waste of money and time on these exercises is just depressing for all sides.
Each time I read a Thai newspaper, all I see is a pro-Thai spin on events, whether it’s seeking to correct “revisions” in history or condemn new roads being built to the temple. Likewise in Cambodia, the media portrays the Thais as greedy land grabbers out to conquer Cambodia one disputed hectre at a time (ditto with Vietnam to the east).
Here’s hoping to an amicable end to this latest round of spats – I hope soon that Cambodians can take pride in the temple for its historical and architectural merits, and not simply as a centerpiece for Thai anger.