Lessons of the Preah Vihear temple dispute for South China Sea conflict



THE South China Sea conflict reminds me of the Preah Vihear temple dispute between the kingdoms of Cambodia and Thailand. Some features of both rivalries rhyme. The antecedent conditions of the conflict are quite similar. Among them, the systemic changes brought by Western imperialism played a huge role in engendering the conflict.

Constructed between the 8th to 11th century AD as a shrine to the Hindu deity Shiva, the Temple of Preah Vihear (Thailand calls it ‘Phra Viharn’) stands on a promontory in the eastern side of the Dângrêk Mountains, a natural boundary between Cambodia and Thailand. Preah Vihear is largely in ruins, but the dispute over its ownership and the areas surrounding it remains a potential flashpoint between two historical rival kingdoms.

Throughout the 19th century, France was able to establish a colony in the eastern side of the Indochinese peninsula, while the British occupied the western region. After militarily defeating the Nguyen dynasty of Vietnam, France gained effective control over southern Vietnam. In 1863, France successfully pressured the Cambodian king to make his kingdom a French protectorate. Prior to this, Cambodia was a vassal of Siam (former name of Thailand).

In the 1880s, the Siamese King Chulalongkorn reorganized his government and consolidated his kingdom’s control of its provinces and dependencies, which included certain parts of Cambodia and Laos. The French thwarted Siam’s efforts through a naval blockade of Siamese coastlines and by sending troops to Laos. In an effort to preserve its independence, from 1904-1908 Siam entered into boundary-settling treaties with France, which ceded Battambang, Sisophon, and Siem Reap.

The Siamese-Cambodian boundary was particularly demarcated by the 1904 treaty between Siam and France. That treaty contains a discrepancy between the description of the boundary and the map representing the boundary. The map placed the temple within French Indochina. The discrepancy went largely unnoticed until Siam conducted a geographical survey of the region in 1934. In 1939, Major General Luang Wichitwathakan, the leading Thai nationalist ideologue, urged Prime Minister Phibun to make sure Preah Vihear would be included in the border negotiations with France.

After Cambodia became independent in 1953, Thailand seized this window of opportunity and occupied the Preah Vihear temple and its adjacent surroundings in 1954. Understandably, Cambodia found this a violation of its sovereignty.

The volley of incendiary statements between the two kingdoms could be framed in this way: Thailand saw Cambodia as simply forwarding the claims of France from whom the Thai experienced humiliation. On the other hand, Cambodia felt Thailand was reviving its imperial past: Thai’s attempt to annex Preah Vihear reminded the Cambodians of how their lands were conquered and their people subjugated by Thailand for centuries.

Thailand is like China which is motivated by a narrative of national humiliation in its quest to recover “lost territories.” China, like Thailand, prefers bilateral negotiations and uses its military might to assert its claims; and the Philippines, like Cambodia, prefers multilateral talks, internationalizes the issue, and seeks the aid of an international legal institution.

The Preah Vihear dispute is certainly far simpler than the South China Sea conflict. The former is a dyadic rivalry, while the latter is a complex rivalry involving several actors, which have more issues at stake.

Nonetheless, the Preah Vihear dispute provides a cautionary tale on the usefulness of international courts in resolving a territorial conflict that has a complex history and involves issues that can never be addressed in a legal institution. The Preah Vihear disputes also dispels the wishful thinking of pundits and observers in the Philippines who believe that negotiating with China is no longer necessary and desirable.

Despite the involvement of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN Security Council, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Cambodia still ended up negotiating bilaterally with Thailand.

The South China Sea conflict will not be any different, unless a different conflict resolution method is mutually taken by the parties involved. Emphasis on “mutually taken.” Negotiation will still play a role; but I believe it should be aided by another conflict resolution method—mediation.

The US and Asean can no longer play this role. The effectiveness of the mediator depends on how much the parties to the conflict mutually trust him/her. Having the Asean play as mediator is like the EU mediating the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Meanwhile, the US as mediator will only complicate the process because it has its own conflict with China.

One of the major issues the mediator must help unpick and rework with China and the Philippines is the concept of sovereignty. The contemporary concept of sovereignty is one based on exclusion. The pre-colonial history of Asia provides inspiration on how to rework the concept of sovereignty into something more inclusive and flexible.


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