Thai, Cambodian Troops Clash near Preah Vihear Temple

Longer-term readers might remember my round-ups from last year’s Red Shirt protests in Bangkok. While certainly not an expert in Thai politics, being in Bangkok during the tumult meant that it was a big part of my life, and thus it was something I wanted to include on my blog. During the last week, a long-simmering conflict at the Thai-Cambodia border flared up again, and in reading the background and news articles about the disputed land I also wanted to do a round-up. Monday marked the 4th consecutive day of clashes near Preah Vihear temple, with the actual number of injured or casualties uncertain; neither country has released an official count. In addition, thousands of villagers have been evacuated. Of course, each country has accused the other of firing the first shot. Earlier today, Cambodia’s prime minister asked the UN Security Council to call an emergency meeting over the fighting but Thailand maintains that no outside help is needed to resolve the issue.
Wing of Middle Ruins - Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia
Preah Vihear’s middle wing, from Everything Everywhere’s photo gallery.

So what is the Thai-Cambodia border dispute about?

In his Global Post column today, Patrick Winn notes that “the two nations are ostensibly warring over less than two square miles of scrubby land. But this disputed territory — devoid of gems, oil or any valuable resource — has also become the focal point of a struggle to preserve national honor and save political face.”  The border dispute was in the news as recently as 2008, when UNESCO recognized Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site for Cambodia (a decision hotly contested by Thailand’s PAD (yellow shirt) group), but has long been a contentious issue.

While built in the 11th and 12th centuries, the controversy began in 1904, when French Indochina (which included present-day Cambodia) and the Kingdom of Siam (present-day Thailand) set up a commission to delineate the border between the two nations. The Dangrek mountains were the agreed-upon watershed, and Preah Vihear was allocated to Indochina in many maps from that time. However, surveys from the 1930s indicated that the temple ought to have fallen on the Thai side, despite the initial commission finding. In the 1950s Thailand occupied the temple in protest, leading Cambodia to petition the International Court of Justice to rule on the border fight.

In its 1962 judgment, the court agreed that the initial commission map from 1904 was inaccurate and that the temple ought to have been allocated to Thailand (Siam). However, since Thailand had accepted the map for years and had subsequently failed to contest ownership on a number of occasions, the ICJ ruled that had tacitly accepted the temple as being a part of Cambodia. When UNESCO hailed the temple as a World Heritage site in 2008, tension between the two countries escalated. Thailand sent troops into the area and 3 Thais trying to plant a Thai flag at the temple site were arrested.

Soldiers Walking with gear - Preah Vihear, Cambodia
Troops near Preah Vihear temple in 2010, from Everything Everywhere’s photo gallery.

While the clashes at the border have been playing out, an aggressive rhetoric has been echoing within Thailand. This weeks’ PAD (yellow shirt) rallies called for a harder line against Cambodia (related in part to the recent arrest and conviction of two Thais accused of spying and illegal entry). And in contrast to their sharply divergent stances last year, Chiang Mai’s redshirts backed the PAD yesterday.  In addition, earlier this year close to 27,000 redshirts marched in Bangkok and called for the release of their imprisoned leaders, in jail following last year’s protests and subsequent crackdown. Politics in Thailand: not so boring.

Further reading about Preah Vihear and the border clashes:

More to come from my trip to Northern Laos shortly. As the border issue figures largely in the news here, I wanted to provide some additional reading and context.


15 thoughts on “Thai, Cambodian Troops Clash near Preah Vihear Temple”

  1. Federico Arrizabalaga

    A very interesting and informative post Jodi, it has certainly illuminated me about the conflict and I have learned things I didn’t know. You don’t seem to be in any danger considering the tone of your article, but from the second picture I assume you were near the action? The first one was taken by Gary, but I understand the second is yours.

    Safe travels!

      1. Federico Arrizabalaga

        Ahhh… I thought I had seen that picture in his site too, or one similar to it. Well, the credit is there now as well so it’s all clear. Enjoy CM!

  2. This is fantastic, thanks for posting. I had heard that there was fighting at the boarder but it is hard to find good sources of information in the mainstream media. For instance, I had no idea what the fighting was actually about. Now I know.

  3. Thanks for educating me about this dispute. So much senseless fighting over land occurs around the world and it is usually between people who are very similar in background and cultures. Thai politics are definitely not boring, though I don’t often understand the nuances involved. A close friend of mine lived in Bangkok for several years and she is always speaking about her experiences there during protests and election times. The concept of ‘saving face’ is so prevalent in many cultures, especially in Asia, that it just drives conflict as you mentioned.

  4. Thanks for the history lesson. It seems uprisings and conflict are a huge part of our world today. However, it would seem silly that this conflict started over Preah Vihear. Is there something more to this that I am missing in terms of it being sacred or valued by the people? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems a bit excessive to be have years of conflict over this. Why can’t they decide to share it?

    1. Hi Jeremy. As Patrick noted, the clashes are motivated in good part by bigger issues than the 4.6km2 of land. See today’s WSJ piece for more info: . The conflict started from a push toward nationalism, the means of achieving that is (at the moment) PV. Thanks for reading!

  5. Hi Jodi, thanks for this illuminating post! I didn’t even hear about this until I read your post. It’s sad that people are hurt and displaced over a small patch of land. I hope a diplomatic solution is found soon.

  6. Long time lurker/follower– thanks so much for the post, while the clashes got little press in the US (d/t the Egypt revolution and other myopic-ness), it’s always helpful to know the history behind these sorts of events.

  7. Josh - Backpacking Addictz

    Hi Jodi

    Looks like nothing has changed since I was there in 2008. Border clashes between the Thais and Cambo’s must have been going on for years. The poor Cambo’s seem to get picked on from the East and the West.

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