Preah Vihear: Cambodia and Thailand maintain peace to boost restoration efforts

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on March 12, 2018

The Preah Vihear Temple on the Thai-Cambodian border has been the subject of a long territorial dispute between the two countries, at times escalating into a short armed conflict. Then, five years ago, the International Courts of Justice has awarded the territorial sovereignty in and around the temple to Cambodia, ending an almost 50-year old dispute. We made the trek to the ancient temple to see how the situation today.

TRANSCRIPT

I'm standing on a cliff - more than 500 metres above sea level - looking down on the plains of Cambodia. The view is majestic.

Above me, at the cliff's highest point, sits the Prasat Preah Vihear. Ownership of this 11th century Hindu temple was for decades disputed by Thailand and Cambodia. In 2011, it led to deadly clashes at the border between both countries.

Civilians like Chan Chon were shocked at the unprecedented escalation.

CHAN CHON, Resident:
"I was very scared like every one else around here. They used all kinds of weaponry that we have never seen before - and we were never as scared as this before."

SAKSITH SAIYASOMBUT; Preah Vihear, Cambodia:
"41 people have lost their lives - both soldiers and civilians alike. In 2013, the International Courts of Justice in The Hague has confirmed an earlier verdict that not only the temple itself, but also the area surrounding it is indeed Cambodian. Ever since then, both Cambodia and Thailand are not only interested to maintain peace in the border region here but also to cooperate in the conservation efforts of this ancient Hindu temple here."

The damage from the violence can still be seen in a few places, but today the area is seeing more tourists than soldiers, about 130,000 visitors per year come here.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also part of a restoration program. Neighboring Thailand, once an adversary, is a vital partner here.

KIM SEDARA; President, National Authority for Preah Vihear:
"The role of Thailand is very important, actually, we are good neighbors right now. Thailand is one of the member states of the ICC Preah Vihear, as well, among the 9 countries, as a member. And Thailand helped in capacity building, in research and planning the conservation of a temple in Kok Ket, another site, in the future. This is the showing of a very positive and good showing of in terms of collaboration and helping each other."

The dispute over Preah Vihear was not the first in Southest Asia, and it's not the last.

Based on its principle of non-interference, ASEAN does not directly intervene in such conflicts but analysts say its existence provides the framework to help its member states find common ground.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK, Director Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University:
"When these bilateral conflicts are mitigated and resolved, it’s more because of the countries in conflict than because of ASEAN. But without ASEAN, they would not have the context and framework to promote a bilateral solution. The resolution is bilateral, but ASEAN provides a regional landscape or environment, but not a direct mechanism of resolution."

Cambodian officials are promoting Preah Vihear as a tourist attraction;

Tucked away in one of the most remote places in the country, it stands as symbol of what peace and cooperation among ASEAN neighbours can achieve.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia