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Bruised nationalism stirring bad feelings between Thais, Cambodians

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There is a whiff of undesirable difficulty building up in relations between Thailand and Cambodia in the aftermath of the World Heritage listing for the controversial Preah Vihear temple.

It is arising from the obligations forced upon the Samak Sundaravej government and the Foreign Ministry by the ongoing People’s Alliance for Democracy street protest, the stance of the opposition Democrat Party and the actions of some senators and nationalist academics.

Bruised nationalism is stimulating feelings of hatred between Thais and Cambodians. Anti-Cambodian sentiment is growing stronger as Thais – who consider themselves superior to their southeastern neighbours – feel they have lost face because Cambodia managed to have the Hindu temple listed as a World Heritage site.

The listing of anyplace as a World Heritage site is not a matter of gain or loss. But many Thais are convinced of loss, because they’ve been told repeatedly that the listing means Thailand has lost sovereignty over Preah Vihear. So, as Cambodia celebrated last week’s World Heritage listing, many Thais felt bitter.

Legal misinterpretation by intellectuals has confused the powerful Thai sense of ownership. The entire world is aware that in 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled Preah Vihear was “situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia”.

As a member of the United Nations, Thailand had to accept the ruling and hand the temple over to Cambodia. In the decades since then, there has been no legal bid to reclaim the site. Some legal experts intentionally misinterpreted Article 60 of the ICJ’s rules by saying it reserved the right to reclaim the temple.

In fact, the article merely says that “in the event of a dispute as to the meaning or scope of judgement”, the court will construe such matters upon the request of any party.

Therefore, in the language of the law, de facto and de jure, the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia.

For the past 46 years, the Thai authorities have never dared use Article 60 to ask the ICJ for clarification of the meaning or scope of its ruling. Such action may have caused further loss of territory, because in making its original decision, the court referred to a French-made map that swallowed up a large swathe of so-called “overlapping” area in Cambodia’s favour. The whole mountain where the temple stands may now be under Cambodian sovereignty.

Many Cambodians have been quoted in their local media as saying Thailand’s unlimited greed would end up bringing the country shame. One Cambodia woman at the temple told The Phnom Penh Post she was increasingly worried that the dispute would turn ugly.

“We are concerned that the Thais have come here to create trouble,” she said, referring to hundreds of Thai protesters who gathered near the temple a few weeks ago.

The group threatened to storm it. On Tuesday, three of their number carried out the threat and were arrested by Cambodian authorities and held for several hours. This kind of emotion will likely destroy the fundamentally good relations between the two countries in the short-term future if both sides allow feelings to get out of hand.

Then there is a technical problem. Former foreign minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to emphasise Thai concerns linking the heritage listing with sovereignty before the World Heritage Committee in Quebec, Canada. That stance could become a powerful argument for Cambodia to use in opposing Thailand’s forthcoming application for World Heritage listing of the adjoining area downhill from the temple within two years.

The World Heritage Committee pointed out its regulations stipulate that the listing of any World Heritage site has nothing to do with sovereignty. However, the Thai team arguing against the listing insisted the committee recognise the domestic political sensitivity of the Preah Vihear site.

Phnom Penh may now be able to turn the tables on Bangkok, since Cambodia also claims sovereignty over territory containing many archaeological sites along the border, including the area downhill from Preah Vihear.

It is difficult to imagine what may happen in the future if Thailand is forced to cut “overlapping” areas off of the sites it proposes for listing. In fact, Thailand may ultimately be left with no sites along the border for which to apply for World Heritage listing.

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