Thailand and Cambodia Renew Historic Hostilities

The current fighting between Cambodia and Thailand goes back to historic enmity between the two countries

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 23:58

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat


The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia that is in the 4th day of a shooting war (although so far only 5  fatalities have been recorded) has long historical antecedents.

Cambodia has always been sensitive about its geographic position, trapped between what it refers to as the Thai tiger and the Vietnamese crocodile. It is dwarfed economically and militarily by both its neighbors.

Cambodia, however, takes pride in the Temple of Angkor Wat that symbolizes past Khmer (Cambodian) greatness. The Temple appears in the names of hotels and restaurants, as a brand name for beers and cigarettes etc. The stone temples were built at a time that the Khmer Empire extended into parts of what is now Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

When the French colonized Cambodia in the 19th century, they were only too happy to promote Cambodian nostalgia and play the protector of national sentiment against neighboring, independent Thailand. They also used the ancient history to reassert, in Cambodia's name, claims of ownership of Thai territories. In 1907, as part of the Franco-Siamese treaty, territories including the Angkor Wat temple were returned to Cambodia.

This treaty was preceded by a 1904 treaty that established the watershed line as the border but entrusted the drawing of the border to a mixed boundary commission. The Siamese commission representatives agreed to let the French officers map the border and the latter proceeded to include the Temple in French Indochina.

After France lost the Indochina war in 1954, a border dispute erupted between Thailand and Cambodia. In 1958 Thailand seized control of Preah Vihear, the site of the current fighting, and this was accompanied by border closings and a rupture of diplomatic ties.

The issue was referred to the International Court of Justice that on the basis of the French maps and previous practice by the two countries awarded the area to Cambodia. This has not resolved the issue and Thai nationalists continue to claim that the area was unjustly appropriated. In 2003, rumors that a Thai actress called Morning Star claimed that the Temple belonged to Thailand, triggered riots in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in which the Thai Embassy was burned as were numerous Thai businesses (Thai economic and cultural dominance is another sore point). Thailand retaliated by closing the border and evicting thousands of Cambodian traders, beggars and laborers and putting its army on alert. Hostilities were prevented but the sensitivities remained.

Cambodia, as the weaker party, wants outside intervention to stop the current fighting and Prime Minister Hun Sen (who has used anti-Thai hostility for political purposes) wants the U.N.  to establish a "buffer zone,". Cambodia claims that the Thais, in using artillery, have damaged the temple that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The claim was denied by Thailand.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint, so far to no avail. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand prefers bilateral negotiations that maximize the disparity of power to Thailand's advantage and rejects U.N. intervention and the mediation offer by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).