- Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and its Solutions by Charnvit Kasetsiri, Pou Sothirak, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun
On 11 November 2013 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down its verdict concerning the interpretation of its 1962 judgement on the temple of Preah Vihear on the Thai-Cambodian border. The Court ruled that Cambodia’s ownership of the temple entitled it to sovereignty over the promontory of the site, as shown on the map Cambodia bases its border claims on. The ICJ made clear, however, that the judgement concerned the promontory only, and did not affect the boundary line between Thailand and Cambodia. While the ruling allowed both sides to claim at least a partial victory on details of the interpretation, ironically enough, it was Thailand’s deepening political crisis that lessened the danger of a widely feared outbreak of violence along the border. The Guide to the Preah Vihear Conflict is a joint effort by two Thai and one Cambodian scholar to explain the context of the dispute and how conflict might be avoided in the future.
In a sense a critique of the political manipulation of Thai and, to a lesser extent Khmer nationalism, the book offers a well-balanced account of the complex relationships between the various stakeholders in the dispute. The compact volume builds on previous work by the authors and is divided into four rather loosely integrated chapters which attempt to unravel the differing historical narratives that dominated the crisis between 2008 and 2011. In addition, the authors offer a set of practical guidelines to manage the simmering conflict.
According to the authors, the revival of contested claims to an area of roughly four square kilometers surrounding the Preah Vihear temple was primarily the result of political infighting in Thailand, and specifically, “part of a plot to remove the government of Samak Sundaravej” (p.25). Subsequent developments are interpreted through the lens of domestic power struggles in both Bangkok and Phnom Penh. The first two chapters of the book provide the historical background to the events that culminated in military clashes in early 2011, when fighting spread to two smaller temple complexes located 150 kilometers from Preah Vihear. Regrettably, however, the period between the ICJ’s 1962 ruling and the first decade of the twenty-first century is somewhat sidestepped, and [End Page 168] the reader is left wondering how the still rather obscure past of the no-man’s land surrounding the temple fits into the historical account. Nevertheless, the authors do an excellent job of highlighting the inconsistencies in the versions of the temple’s history advanced by both countries. According to the authors, it is surprising that, given the similarities between the two peoples, relations “should be characterized by deep-seated ignorance, misunderstanding, and prejudice” (p.4). It is precisely the many similarities between the two peoples, however, that explain why territorial nationalism and the remembrance of past wars constitute such central elements to their respective national identities and render the ambiguities along the common border as destructive sources of potentially violent conflict.
In focusing on nation-building, it is unfortunate that the authors refrain from problematizing the challenges posed by the ongoing project of state-making, to which their description of contemporary events alludes. In 2003 Jean-Marc F. Blanchard coined the term “adolescent state”; that is a state that is yet to find its identity and to consolidate the institutional processes ensuring predictable and prudent, in short adult behaviour. Uneven development and an excessive concern with status and position in foreign policy increase the functional pressures on the borders of the adolescent state. The failure to build societal consensus and extreme fragmentation among the elites, especially in the Thai context, effectively raised the political, economic and emotional value of the Preah Vihear temple. Such a perspective calls in particular for a closer examination of the role played by the Thai military. The claim that it were members of the armed forces that successfully pushed for...