Sacred Values to Violence

Established on a high cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, in the Preah Vihear province, Cambodia, the Temple of Preah Vihear exudes adept craftsmanship and culture1. Being one of the most marvelous architectural wonder of Southeast Asia, it was constructed between the 9th and 11th centuries by Khmer kings Suryavarman I and II when the empire was at its height2. Monasteries and temples in reverence to Buddha, Shiva, Visnu were built in the mandala formation as a microcosm of the universe and were used not only for religious functions but also for administration, craftsmanship and for the storage of grains .The temple was patronized frequently by the Khmer Kings and later was converted for use by the Buddhists when Hinduism wane in the region. In modern times, this eleventh-century hindu temple , a symbol of sacred values of the Khmer people (Cambodians) has become a symbol of national identity and a major source of conflict between Cambodia and Thailand as each side tries to claim sovereignty over the temple 2. This paper expounds on the genesis of the conflict and argues that the nationalistic sentiments within each respective country have resulted in hostility between the two neighbours who share a common heritage and reverence to the temple.


In 1904, Cambodia (then a protectorate of France) and Thailand formed a treaty to demarcate their mutual border to follow the watershed line of the mountain range.The temple is located in the intersecting area between north-eastern Thailand and northern Cambodia and if the initial agreement to follow the watershed line was followed strictly, the temple would be placed on Thailand’s side but the map that was drawn up by the French officers who were tasked with mapping out the border showed that the frontier deviated from the watershed line placing the temple onto Cambodia’s side2. This map with the deviation was sent to Thailand’s authorities who initially accepted it and also was used in 1962 where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared that the temple belongs to Cambodia 4. This has resulted in much conflict between the two countries henceforth.

1.Siska Lund, “ A mandala for southeast Asian international system,”The culture Mandala  6.no.1 2003

2. Kasetsiri, Charnvit, “ Thailand-cambodia: A Love-Hate Relationship, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia,” Thailand –Cambodia 2003

3.Panchali Saikai,” The dispute over prea vihear,” Seen problems, Unseen STAKES (SEARP) August 2012

4. International Court of Justice, (ICJ). “Request for Interpretation of the Judgement of 15 June 1962 in the Case Concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear ( Cambodia v. Thailand) ,Summary of the Judgement of 11 November 2013

Nationalistic Views

In modern times, the Cambodians view the temple as a symbol of national pride based on the prestigious Khmer past while the Thais view the temple as a sign of national humiliation because of lost territories.

Part 1 of Dispute:

The ICJ stated that Thailand had not expressed their disagreements with the map for over half a century and thus that was interpreted that they have accepted it and by a majority vote of nine to three, Cambodia was declared the owner and Thailand was instructed to remove its soldiers 1.It is interesting to note as to why the French decided  not to comply with the initial plan of following the watershed line; it could be an accidental mistake but one could also ponder that maybe the French whom Cambodia was under its wings at that time maybe wanted to mark out more territory under Cambodia for the sake of having more land so that they in turn would have more land to control; This aspect of the dispute is what history excludes from us. Additionally, it is interesting that the Thais didn’t had any concerns with the map when the French gave it to them; the Minister of the Interior , Prince Damrong (Thailand) even expressed gratitude to the French minister in Bangkok for the mapping works 2 .

According to Thailand, it was their error for having mistaken that the map was drawn according to the initial plan and thus didn’t review the maps thoroughly and they themselves even published the “erroneous” maps for quite some time. ICJ also ignored the fact that both countries have historical ties with the temple but based their judgement on who had the temple to themselves the longest without contest. This seems quite insensitive and may have offended the Thais who just like the Cambodians have a rightful share to the temple. Thus, the ICJ ruling may have germinate deep resentment in terms of nationalistic sentiments between the two countries as Thailand see the temple as symbol of national humiliation as it wasn’t able to keep whole or at least part of the ownership of the temple and Cambodia view the temple as a national treasure of Khmer’s past and glad to get the whole ownership especially since they resented the Thais’ sense of superiority2, so this was a glorious, gloating win on their side. The scene of the dispute is liken to two siblings (Thailand and Cambodia) fighting over a toy (temple) in the form of a “tug-a-war”.

1.Panchali Saikai,” The dispute over prea vihear,” 2012

2. Kasetsiri, Charnvit, “ Thailand-cambodia: A Love-Hate Relationship, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia,”2003

Part 2 of dispute:

 In 2008, the dispute resurfaced when Cambodia managed to register the temple as a “UNESCO World Heritage Site” and this may have rubbed salt onto Thailand’s wounded national ego .This might also be seen as an attempt by Cambodia to revitalize/restore the glory days of Khmer’s past. Interestingly, Samak’s government (Thailand) signed a declaration that  encourages Cambodia’s bid to list the temple as a World Heritage Site and even recognized the revised map of the temple prepared by Cambodia2.The border dispute intensified as Thailand’s domestic politics became progressively diverged between those who supported Samak (the red shirts protestors) and those who opposed him (the yellow shirts) .Samak’s opposition accuse him of  forfeiting the Thai’s territories in exchange for business privileges1. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party even use this temple dispute as a political tool to garner nationalist support during the national elections by widely stroking nationalist fervor. The Cambodians were already sour for being forced always to relinquish territories in the past to both Thailand and Vietnam3  and the politicians tap on these sentiments so that they can garner support from the masses by telling them that they will fight to keep their land. Thus, we can see that the Cambodian nationalists draw on the nationalistic sentiments of “Khmerness” among its people and emphasized that there was hope for Cambodia to be a great nation as it was once during the Khmer empire and this influence them to view the temple as an iconography and part of their national heritage, hence they must fight for it and not fail like how they did with their other territories.

When Abhisit Vejjajiva replaced Samak as the Thai prime minister in 2008, Hun Sen nominated Abhisit’s political adversary, Thakin Shinawatra who was part of Samak’s government as his economic advisor .This could be seen as an attempt by Hun Sen to spite Abhisit as hostility rises. Abhisit also refused interventions for mediation by external organizations such as ICJ and the Association of South East Asia1 and the reason could be that Thailand did not want to trust or could be wary of external interventions especially since during the first part of the dispute, they weren’t given the verdict that they desired when external organizations got involved.

The temple was used as a tool by the Thai politicians to sway the people and the people under false consciousness was led to believe and accept this nationalistic sentiments so much so that in Thailand , there were massive protests and even among themselves they had been divided (red vs yellow shirts).The Thai politicians emphasizes on the “ sia dindaen”3 which is  the “traumatic” loss of the temple and use this as a means of linking an historical place of significance with nationalistic sentiments in the hearts of their citizens thus resulting in an irresolvable hostility with Cambodia as they the bear grudges of losing their territory.

  2. Panchali Saikai,” The dispute over prea vihear,” 2012
  3. Noikaew, Taksaporn. “The Clash of National Identity between Thailand and Cambodia.” Preah Vihear 6th Gen n.d.


We can see that the nationalistic sentiments of the two countries with regards to the temple have intensified significantly in the second part of the dispute. The temple’s ownership itself fades into obscurity as both countries attempts to provoke each other politically and stir up nationalistic sentiments within their own people for their own political gain and this has led to much hostility between the countries despite sharing a common heritage and cultural claim to the temple .It is disheartening that the political leaders in both countries have decided to emphasize on such sentiments instead of using the temple as a “coupler” between them so as to reach a mutual understanding and build friendly ties. This is because the temple is a cultural symbol as well as a sacred place of worship and the people surrounding the temple regardless of nationality share a common ancestry but they are defined as a separate people by man-made frontiers. Preah Vihear has enormous tourism potential and could benefit the economy on both sides and should be seen as a symbol of shared traditions and prestige that exist on both sides of the border and not a symbol of dispute.



International Court of Justice, (ICJ). “Request for Interpretation of the Judgement of 15 June 1962 in the Case Concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear ( Cambodia v. Thailand) (Cambodia v. Thailand).” Summary of the Judgement of 11 November 2013

Kasetsiri , Charnvit . “Thailand-Cambodia: A Love-Hate Relationship, Kyoto Review of  Southeast Asia.” Thailand-Cambodia 2003

Landon, P. “Thailand’s Quarrel with France in Perspective .” The Far Eastern  Quarterly I, no. 19411AD: 25–42.

Noikaew, Taksaporn. “The Clash of National Identity between Thailand and Cambodia.” Preah Vihear 6th Genn.d.

Lund, Siska. “A Mandala for Southeast Asian International System.” The Culture Mandala 6.no.1 2003.

Saikai, Panchali. “The Dispute over Prea Vihear.” Seen Problems , Unseen Stakes (SEARP) (August)2012.

Rand, N. “Nationalism and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict.” Asian Conflicts  Reports Issue 16 2011.

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