Cambodia and Thailand on brink of war

A dispute over an ancient Khmer temple has sparked conflict in Southeast Asia, says Edward Loxton

BY Edward Loxton LAST UPDATED AT 09:49 ON Thu 24 Jul 2008

Thailand and its down-at-heel neighbour Cambodia are literally on the brink of war in a bitter dispute over a 1,000-year-old temple that clings to the top of a 1,700ft escarpment separating the two Southeast Asian nations.

Ancient rivalries between the two Buddhist countries were ignited this month after UNESCO awarded World Heritage site status to the ruined Khmer temple ensemble, Preah Vihear, which was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962.

However, the only reliable maps of the jungle-covered region, drawn up by French colonial authorities 100 years ago, show that the temple ruins actually stand on Thai territory, and Thailand decided this week to stake its claim to the land around the site by moving in 1,500 troops and heavy artillery. Cambodia responded with a similar show of force, and today the two sides stood eyeball-to-eyeball as the Cambodian government spoke of an "imminent threat of war".

Thailand's claim to the hilltop land surrounding the ruins, scarcely three square miles in extent, is based not only on the ancient maps but on the geography of the area. The Preah Vihear site is virtually inaccessible from the Cambodian plain that stretches out far below the escarpment, while a paved road leads directly to the ruins from the Thai side of the border.

The Thais grumbled for years about the International Court decision, while cashing in on their easy access to the ruins by charging tourists a road toll. The Cambodians set up a border post of their own at the entrance to the site and charged fees for viewing the ruins. Both sides lived happily enough with the arrangement - until the UNESCO decision threw the spotlight on Preah Vihear and awoke long-simmering tensions between the two countries.

Thai opposition parties, sniffing political capital, complained that the shaky Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had high-handedly given his approval to Cambodia's application for World Heritage status for the temple without putting the matter before parliament.

The opposition suspected the hand of the former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in this. Thaksin, now known in Britain as the owner of Manchester City FC, wants to built a giant casino and resort on the Cambodian island of Kho Kone, and is believed to have persuaded Samak to curry favour with the Cambodian government on his behalf by supporting Phnom Penh's application.

Whether or not this saga proves to be yet another example of Thaksin's continuing influence, it is not the first time the two countries have come to blows over an ancient Khmer temple.

Five years ago, anti-Thai riots broke out in Phnom Penh after a Thai actress claimed Cambodia's most famous ruins, the Angkor Wat site, really belonged to Thailand. She confessed later that her knowledge of Southeast Asian history was a bit shaky, but in the meantime protesters sacked the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh and set fire to the building. Thailand citizens living in Phnom Penh had to be flown out. Relations have been strained ever since.

Now, the military build-up continues at Preah Vihear and the Cambodia government has accused Thailand of posing a "very serious threat to our independence and territorial integrity." Already, the first blood has flowed. A Thai soldier lost a leg after stepping on a Cambodian landmine. · 

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