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Temple Thailand, Cambodia fighting over for 100 years

In April 2009, Thai soldiers damaged 66 stones of the temple by firing across the border; In February 2010, Cambodia formally complained to Google Maps

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For over a century, Cambodia and Thailand have been engaged in a contentious battle over the ownership of the ancient Hindu Preah Vihear Temple. Following Cambodia’s independence in 1954, Thailand took control of the temple, leading to ongoing conflicts between the two nations.

The name “Prasat Preah Vihear” is a combination of the terms Prasat, Preah, and Vihear, signifying the “religious offering of the sacred shrine”. The word prasat (प्रसाद) (ប្រាសាទ) in Sanskrit translates to “religious offering”, which can also be interpreted as “temple” in this particular context; preah (ព្រះ) denotes “sacred” or “beloved”; and vihear (វិហារ), derived from the Sanskrit vihara (विहार), means “abode” or “shrine” (the central structure of a temple). In Khmer, phnom (ភ្នំ) signifies mountain, and the temple is sometimes referred to by Cambodians as “Phnom Preah Vihear” (ភ្នំព្រះវិហារ). These variations of the name hold significant political and national implications.

The dispute between Cambodia and Thailand regarding the land near the temple has resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence. One such clash took place in October 2008. In April 2009, Thai soldiers allegedly damaged 66 stones of the temple by firing across the border. In February 2010, the Cambodian government lodged a formal complaint with Google Maps for showing the natural watershed as the international border instead of the line depicted on the 1907 French map used by the International Court of Justice in 1962.

This photo of the temple was taken in 2003
This photo was taken in 2003

In February 2011, during negotiations between Thai and Cambodian officials to resolve the conflict, troops from both sides clashed, leading to casualties on both sides. Artillery bombardment took place in the region during the conflict. The Cambodian government asserted that the temple suffered damage. However, a UNESCO mission sent to assess the extent of the destruction indicated that both Cambodian and Thai gunfire caused the damage.

From 4 February 2011, both sides engaged in artillery exchanges, each accusing the other of initiating the violence. On 5 February, Cambodia formally complained to the UN, stating that “The recent military actions by Thailand violate the 1991 Paris Peace Accord, UN Charter, and a 1962 ruling from the International Court of Justice”.

On 6 February, the Cambodian government reported damage to the temple. The military commander of Cambodia stated: “A wing of our Preah Vihear temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment”. However, Thai sources mentioned only minor damage, alleging that Cambodian soldiers had fired from inside the temple. ASEAN, of which both countries are members, offered to mediate the dispute. Nevertheless, Thailand insisted that bilateral discussions would be more effective in resolving the issue.

On 5 February, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, a right-wing group, demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, accusing him of failing to protect the nation’s sovereignty. In June 2011, during a UNESCO World Heritage Convention in Paris, Cambodia’s management proposal for the temple was accepted. Consequently, Thailand decided to withdraw from the event, with the Thai representative stating, “We are withdrawing to express our disagreement with any decisions made during this meeting.”

In response to Cambodia’s request in February 2011 for Thai military forces to leave the area, the ICJ judges voted 11-5 to order both countries to immediately withdraw their military forces and impose restrictions on their police forces. The court clarified that this order would not influence any final decision on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Abhisit Vejjajiva mentioned that Thai soldiers would not retreat from the disputed area until both countries’ militaries agreed on a mutual withdrawal. He stressed the importance of dialogue between the two sides, suggesting that the joint border committee would be the appropriate platform to plan a coordinated withdrawal.

On 11 November 2013, the ICJ ruled that the land surrounding the temple on the east and west sides (with the south belonging to Cambodia and the north to Thailand) is under Cambodian ownership, and any remaining Thai security forces in that area should vacate.

Preah Vihear Temple

The plan of Prasat Preah Vihear
The plan of Prasat Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear Temple, situated atop a 525 m cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains of the Preah Vihear province in Cambodia, stands as a significant Hindu temple constructed by the Khmer Empire. Throughout its history, the temple has undergone modifications and received support from various kings, resulting in a blend of different architectural styles. Unlike most Khmer temples, Preah Vihear Temple deviates from the conventional rectangular plan and instead follows a long north-south axis.

The temple derives its name from the Preah Vihear province in Cambodia, where it is presently located. It is also closely associated with the Khao Phra Wihan National Park, which borders it in Thailand’s Sisaket Province. However, access to the temple from Thailand is no longer possible.

Following a prolonged dispute between Cambodia and Thailand regarding ownership, the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled in favour of Cambodia in 1962, affirming its sovereignty over the temple. As a testament to its cultural and historical significance, Preah Vihear Temple was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 7 July 2008.

On 8 July 2008, the World Heritage Committee decided to include Prasat Preah Vihear, along with 26 other sites, on the World Heritage Site list. This move was made despite objections from Thailand, as the map suggested Cambodian ownership of disputed land near the temple. As the process of heritage listing commenced, Cambodia expressed its desire to seek a World Heritage inscription from UNESCO.

Thailand argued that it should be a collaborative effort, leading UNESCO to postpone discussions during its 2007 meeting. Eventually, both Cambodia and Thailand reached a consensus that Preah Vihear Temple possessed “outstanding universal value” and should be added to the World Heritage List promptly. The two countries agreed that Cambodia would propose the site for formal inscription at the 32nd session of the World Heritage Committee in 2008, with Thailand’s active backing.

This resulted in a revision of the map for the proposed inscription, focusing solely on the temple and its immediate surroundings. Nevertheless, Thailand’s political opposition criticised this revised plan (refer to Modern History and Ownership Dispute), arguing that including Preah Vihear could still impact the disputed area near the temple.

In response to domestic political pressure, the Thai government retracted its formal endorsement for listing Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage site. Despite official objections from Thailand, Cambodia persisted with the application and ultimately succeeded on 7 July 2008.

Location and recognition together foment debate

The temple was constructed atop Poy Tadi, a cliff within the Dângrêk Mountain range serving as the natural boundary between Cambodia and Thailand. Cambodia designates the site to be situated in Svay Chrum village, Kan Tout commune, within Choam Khsant District of Preah Vihear Province, located 140 km from Angkor Wat and 418 km from Phnom Penh.

The temple sits atop a hill, aligned in a north-south direction. The flat terrain visible in the top portion of the image represents the Cambodian region to the south.
The temple sits atop a hill, aligned in a north-south direction. The flat terrain visible in the top portion of the image represents the Cambodian region to the south.

Thailand, on the other hand, identifies the temple’s location as Bhumsrol village in Bueng Malu sub-district (now part of Sao Thong Chai subdistrict) within the Kantharalak district of Sisaket province, situated 110 km from Mueang Sisaket District at the heart of Sisaket province. In 1962, the ICJ determined that the temple building itself belonged to Cambodia, while the most direct access route was from Thailand.

The temple complex stretches 800 m along a north-south axis, with its face towards the plains to the north, separated by the international border. It includes a causeway and steps leading up the hill to the sanctuary, situated on the clifftop at the southern end of the complex. This structure, although distinct from the temple mountains at Angkor, symbolises Mount Meru.

Recognising its cultural significance, the temple was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, sparking further political manoeuvring by both Thai and Cambodian nationalists. Not only does the temple hold immense cultural value for both countries, but it also has the potential to generate significant tourist revenue for Cambodia.

After a prolonged dispute, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) finally settled the matter in 1962 by ruling that the temple belonged to Cambodia. In 2013, the ICJ once again reaffirmed Cambodia’s sovereignty over the temple, unanimously declaring that Thailand must withdraw its military presence from the area. Additionally, the ICJ ordered Thailand to return any artefacts or objects that were removed from the temple ruins since 1954 back to Cambodia.

Architecture

Prasat Preah Vihear
Prasat Preah Vihear

The path to the sanctuary is marked by five gopuras, each reached by steps and indicating an elevation change. These gopuras obstruct the view of the temple’s next section until visitors pass through the gateway, preventing a complete view of the complex from any single point. The fifth gopura, in the Koh Ker style, still shows remnants of its original red paint, while the fourth gopura, from the Khleang/Baphuon periods, features a remarkable depiction of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The third gopura, the largest, is flanked by two halls, leading to the sanctuary through two courtyards, with two libraries in the outer courtyard.

Overview

The gopura of the first three levels of the mountain can be accessed through large stairways and a long pillared causeway. Nāga balustrades are present between the third, fourth, and top levels. Galleries and colonnades are designated for religious ceremonies and rituals around the main shrine with the linga.

Construction materials

Preah Vihear was constructed using grey and yellow sandstone found locally. Wood was extensively used to support the roof, covered in terracotta tiles. Bricks, despite their small size, were preferred over large rock slabs for corbel arches due to their ease of use and compactness. The sandstone blocks for the main tower are massive, weighing at least five tons each, some with lifting holes.

Illustration of temple structures
Illustration of temple structures

Inscriptions

Various inscriptions have been discovered at Preah Vihear, with the most notable being the Stele of Preah Vihear or Stele of the Divakara. This Sanskrit and Khmer inscription, likely from 1119 to 1121 CE, details the life of royal guru Divakara and his service under five Khmer kings. Divakara was tasked by Suryavarman II to visit temples, offer gifts, conduct rituals, and oversee repairs. At Preah Vihear, he presented valuable items to Shikhareshvara, the main deity, including a probable gold statue of dancing Shiva. He incorporated a golden platform adorned with precious gemstones, adorned the temple floor with bronze plaques, and embellished the walls with plates made of valuable metals. He issued a decree mandating the annual redecoration of the towers, courtyards, and main entrance. Additionally, he ensured that all individuals working at the temple received their rightful payments. This inscription is etched on a stele discovered within the mandapa.

K.380: This inscription is present on both sides of the southern door of the gopura on the fourth level. It is written in Sanskrit and Khmer, most likely between 1038 and 1049, and contains significant historical details about the Preah Vihear temple. It recounts the tale of a local figure named Sukarman, who served as the temple’s recorder and guardian of the kingdom’s archives. It also mentions a royal decree that mandated certain individuals to pledge their loyalty to Shikhareshvara.

Drawing of temple structures
Drawing of temple structures

K.381: This inscription was carved on the southern doorjamb of the portico in the eastern palace, situated on the third level. Composed in Sanskrit and Khmer in 1024, it narrates the story of Tapasvindra-Pandita, the head of a hermitage, who was entrusted with the responsibility of favouring Shikhareshvara in disposing of the presentation.

K.382: This inscription was engraved on a pillar and was discovered severely damaged in front of the central sanctuary. It was later transported to the Bangkok National Museum. Created in 1047, it references Suryavarman I, the patron who commissioned the inscription. However, it contains limited information of significance to the Preah Vihear temple.

Mountain stairway

Upon passing through the contemporary entrance gate, visitors are met with a steep stairway made up of 163 steps crafted from large stone slabs, many of which are directly carved into the rock surface. The stairway spans 8 m in width and 78.5 m in length. Initially, the stairway was lined with rows of lion statues, but only a few of them remained near the modern entrance gate. In the final 27 m, the stairway tapers down to a width of just 4 m and is bordered by seven small terraces on each side, which were once adorned with lion statues. The challenging ascent of the stairway symbolizes the arduous journey of faith required to approach the sacred realm of the gods.

Lion head reservoir

Between Gopura IV and III, some 50 m to the east of the second pillared avenue, there is a square, stone-paved reservoir, 9.4 m on each side. Each side of the reservoir has 12 steps, each 20 to 25 cm high. Near this small reservoir, there is a redented, square brick base 6 m on each side. It is supposed that this was used as the pedestal for a statue or a small construction made in perishable materials, suggesting a ritual use of this small reservoir. According to previous reports, on the southern side of this pool, there was a stone lion’s head with a water outlet from its mouth. It was visible only when the water level of the reservoir was very low. This lion spout is no longer at the site, and its whereabouts are unknown.

History

The construction of the initial temple on the premises commenced in the early 9th century. During that time and in the subsequent centuries, it was devoted to the Hindu deity Shiva, who was worshipped in his forms as the mountain gods Sikharesvara and Bhadresvara. However, the oldest remaining sections of the temple date back to the Koh Ker period in the early 10th century, when the capital of the empire was situated in the city of the same name.

Presently, traces of the Banteay Srei style from the late 10th century can be observed, but the majority of the temple was built during the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I (1006–1050) and Suryavarman II (1113–1150). An inscription discovered at the temple provides a comprehensive account of Suryavarman II’s involvement in sacred rituals, participation in religious festivals, and generous offerings to his spiritual advisor, the elderly Brahmin Divakarapandita, which included white parasols, golden bowls, and elephants.

According to the inscription, the Brahmin took a keen interest in the temple and contributed a golden statue of a dancing Shiva, known as Nataraja. As Hinduism declined in the region, the site underwent a conversion and came to be used by Buddhists.

The Shiva-Arjuna duel on a part of the Prasat Preah Vihear
The Shiva-Arjuna duel

In contemporary times, the rediscovery of Prasat Preah Vihear led to a dispute between Thailand and the newly independent Cambodia. This disagreement arose due to the utilization of different maps by each party during the process of national delimitation. In 1904, Siam and the French colonial authorities governing Cambodia established a joint commission to delineate their shared border, primarily following the watershed line of the Dângrêk mountain range.

Consequently, the majority of the Preah Vihear temple was situated on Thailand’s side. At that time, France, acting as Cambodia’s protector, concurred with Siam in the Franco-Siamese boundary treaty of 1904. Subsequently, the Mixed Commission was established in 1905 to carry out the demarcation between Siam and Cambodia. After conducting survey work, French officers produced a map in 1907 to indicate the precise location of the border. Cambodia relied on the map published by French geographers in 1907 (referred to as the “Annex I map”), which depicted the temple within Cambodian territory. Conversely, Thailand adhered to the provisions outlined in the 1904 treaty, which was as follows:

“The frontier between Siam and Cambodia starts on the left shore of the Great Lake. From the mouth of the river Stung Roluos, it follows the parallel from that point in an easterly direction, until it meets the river Prek Kompong Tiam, then, turning northwards, it merges with the meridian from that meeting point as far as the Pnom Dang Rek mountain chain. From there it follows the watershed between the basins of Nam Sen and the Mekong on the one hand, and the Nam Moun on the other, and joins the Pnom Padang chain, the crest of which it follows eastwards as far as the Mekong. Upstream from that point, the Mekong remains the frontier of the Kingdom of Siam, in accordance with Article 1 of the Treaty of 3 October 1893”.

The temple’s location within Thai territory was called into question when the topographic map used in the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling showed a deviation from the watershed line in the Preah Vihear area. This resulted in all of the temples being placed on the Cambodian side. After French troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1954, Thai forces occupied the temple to assert their claim, leading to a diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

The court proceedings focused on the acceptance of the 1907 map by Siam and whether it was a valid document. Cambodia argued that the map showing the temple on Cambodian soil was authoritative, while Thailand claimed it was invalid and violated the border commission’s working principle. Thailand also stated that they had not protested the map earlier due to their possession of the temple or a lack of understanding of its inaccuracies.

ICJ verdict

On June 15, 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a judgment regarding the ownership of the temple. The ICJ ruled with a majority of 9 to 3 that the temple belonged to Cambodia. As a result, Thailand was obligated to withdraw all of its troops from the temple. Additionally, by a vote of 7 to 5, the ICJ determined that Thailand must return any antiquities, such as sculptures, that it had previously removed from the temple.

It is important to note that the Annex I map, which depicted the temple’s location, did not have binding authority as it was not created by the Mixed Commission as specified in the treaty. However, both parties involved in the dispute adopted the map, thereby giving it a binding character.

The court’s decision took into account the fact that for more than five decades after the map was drawn, the Thai authorities did not raise any objections to its depiction of the temple’s location in various international forums. Furthermore, they did not object when a French colonial official received a Thai scholar and government figure at the temple in 1930. This suggests that Thailand may not have realized the map was incorrect at that time.

Based on the legal principle “Qui tacet consentire videtur si loqui debuisset ac potuisset” (he who is silent is taken to agree), the court concluded that Thailand had accepted and benefited from other aspects of the border treaty. Therefore, the court ruled that Thailand had accepted the map, and consequently, Cambodia was recognized as the rightful owner of the temple.

It was clear from the record, however, that the maps were communicated to the Siamese Government as purporting to represent the outcome of the work of delimitation; since there was no reaction on the part of the Siamese authorities, either then or for many years, they must be held to have acquiesced. The maps were moreover communicated to the Siamese members of the Mixed Commission, who said nothing, to the Siamese Minister of the Interior, Prince Damrong, who thanked the French Minister in Bangkok for them, and to the Siamese provincial governors, some of whom knew of Preah Vihear. If the Siamese authorities accepted the Annex I map without investigation, they could not now plead any error vitiating the reality of their consent.

The Siamese Government and later the Thai Government had raised no query about the Annex I map prior to its negotiations with Cambodia in Bangkok in 1958. But in 1934–1935, a survey had established a divergence between the map line and the true line of the watershed, and other maps had been produced showing the Temple as being in Thailand. Thailand had nevertheless continued to also use and indeed to publish maps showing Preah Vihear as lying in Cambodia. Moreover, in the course of the negotiations for the 1925 and 1937 Franco-Siamese Treaties, which confirmed the existing frontiers, and in 1947 in Washington before the Franco-Siamese Conciliation Commission, Thailand was silent. The natural inference was that Thailand had accepted the frontier at Preah Vihear as it was drawn on the map, irrespective of its correspondence with the watershed line.

Interiors of the Prasat Preah Vihear
The interiors

Sir Percy Spender, an Australian judge, expressed a strong disagreement with the minority opinion of the court. He highlighted that the French government had never acknowledged Thai “acquiescence” or approval, even when Thailand deployed military observers at the temple in 1949. In contrast, France consistently maintained that their map was accurate and the temple was situated on their side of the natural watershed, despite evidence to the contrary. Spender believed that Thailand’s adjustment of its maps was satisfactory without the need to formally object to France’s claims. He said:

Whether the Mixed Commission did or did not delimit the Dangrek, the truth, in my opinion, is that the frontier line on that mountain range is today the line of the watershed. The Court however has upheld a frontier line which is not the line of the watershed, one which in the critical area of the Temple is an entirely different one. This finds its justification in the application of the concepts of recognition or acquiescence.

With profound respect for the Court, I am obliged to say that in my judgment, as a result of a misapplication of these concepts and an inadmissible extension of them, territory, the sovereignty in which, both by treaty and by the decision of the body appointed under (the) treaty to determine the frontier line, is Thailand’s, now becomes vested in Cambodia.

Thailand expressed strong disapproval and declared its intention to abstain from meetings of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in protest of what Thai officials perceived as American favouritism towards Cambodia in the conflict. Thai officials pointed to Acheson’s involvement as Cambodia’s legal representative, while the US government maintained that Acheson was acting in a private capacity on behalf of Cambodia. This led to widespread demonstrations in Thailand against the decision. Eventually, Thailand relented and agreed to hand over the site to Cambodia.

Instead of lowering the Thai national flag at the temple, Thai soldiers removed the pole with the flag still flying and relocated it to the nearby Mor I Daeng cliff, where it remains in use. In January 1963, Cambodia officially took control of the site in a ceremony attended by approximately 1,000 individuals, many of whom had climbed the cliff from the Cambodian side. Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia’s leader, ascended the cliff in under an hour and made offerings to Buddhist monks. As a gesture of goodwill, he announced during the ceremony that all Thais could visit the temple without visas and that Thailand could retain any artifacts it had previously taken from the site.

Civil war

The civil war in Cambodia commenced in 1970, and the strategic location of the temple atop a cliff made it easily defensible from a military standpoint. Despite the communist forces capturing the plain below, soldiers loyal to the Lon Nol government in Phnom Penh continued to hold the temple.

Prasat Preah Vihear during the civil war
During the civil war

Following the capture of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, the soldiers of the Khmer National Armed Forces stationed at Preah Vihear persisted in their resistance even after the collapse of the Khmer Republic. The Khmer Rouge made multiple unsuccessful attempts to seize the temple, but they finally succeeded on May 22, 1975, by bombarding the cliff, scaling it, and overpowering the defenders, as reported by Thai officials. The defenders, however, simply crossed the border and surrendered to Thai authorities.

In December 1978, full-scale war erupted in Cambodia when the Vietnamese army invaded to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge troops retreated to border areas, and in January, the Vietnamese reportedly attacked the Khmer Rouge forces taking refuge in the temple, although no damage to the temple was reported. The invasion led to a significant influx of Cambodian refugees into Thailand. Guerrilla warfare persisted in Cambodia throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, making it difficult to access Preah Vihear.

The temple briefly opened to the public in 1992 but was subsequently reoccupied by Khmer Rouge fighters the following year. In December 1998, the temple became the site of negotiations in which several hundred Khmer Rouge soldiers, considered the last significant guerrilla force, agreed to surrender to the government in Phnom Penh.

Thailand expels Cambodian refugees

On 12 June 1979, the Thai government, led by General Kriangsak Chomanan following a military coup, notified foreign embassies in Bangkok of its intention to expel a significant number of Cambodian refugees. They granted the United States, France, and Australia the authority to select 1,200 refugees each for resettlement in their respective countries.

In response, Lionel Rosenblatt, the refugee coordinator at the American embassy, Yvette Pierpaoli, a French businesswoman based in Bangkok, and representatives from the Australian and French governments hurried to the border to choose the refugees that very night. Within a frantic three-hour window, these foreign officials identified and selected 1,200 refugees from the thousands held by Thai soldiers within the confines of Wat Ko (Wat Chana Chaisri), a Buddhist temple located in the town of Aranyaprathet. These chosen refugees were then transported by buses to Bangkok. The fate of the remaining refugees, who were driven away, remains unknown.

Thailand expels Cambodian refugees

Subsequently, it was discovered that refugees had been gathered from various locations and sent to Preah Vihear. An official from the American embassy, positioned beneath a tree along a dirt road leading to the temple, tallied the number of buses and estimated that approximately 42,000 Cambodians had been taken to the temple. Preah Vihear is situated atop a towering escarpment, 2,000 feet high, overlooking the Cambodian plains below. Upon arrival, the refugees were unloaded from the buses and forcibly pushed down the steep escarpment. “There was no discernible path to follow,” recounted one survivor.

“The way that we had to go down was only a cliff. Some people hid on top of the mountain and survived. Others were shot or pushed over the cliff. Most of the people began to climb down using vines as ropes. They tied their children on their backs and strapped them across their chests. As the people climbed down, the soldiers threw big rocks over the cliff,” the survivor said.

The estimation made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees later revealed that approximately 3,000 Cambodians lost their lives during the pushback, while an additional 7,000 individuals remained unaccounted for. General Kriangsak’s primary objective in executing this ruthless operation was to convey to the international community that his government would not shoulder the burden of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees alone.

This strategy proved successful as, over the next twelve years, the United Nations and Western nations assumed the responsibility of supporting Cambodian refugees in Thailand, resettling numerous individuals in different countries, and implementing measures to facilitate the safe return of Cambodians to their homeland.

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