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.


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

Angkor Wat: Between Mass Tourism and Heritage Conservation

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on March 5, 2018

Angkor Wat is considered as one of the greatest cultural heritage sites in Southeast Asia, with millions of tourists visiting the ancient temple ruins each year. But how do officials balance mass tourism with conservation? And could this serve as a role model for other heritage sites in the region? We went there to find the answer.


A new day over Angkor Wat, one of the largest ancient temples in the world.

Built around 900 years ago, it has seen the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire and now stands as a symbol for modern day Cambodia.

But its popularity as a tourist destination means it's a marvel you won't be able to enjoy in quiet isolation. 

About 5 million people visit Angkor Wat and its surrounding grounds every year, and though it may seem over-crowded, park officials disagree.

They say in this area, measuring some 400 square kilometres, there’s still plenty of space to move around.

SOK SANGVAR; Deputy Director General, Authority for the Protection of the Site and Management of the Region of Angkor (APSARA):
"I think we’re very far from the ceiling, from the maximum. I think, once again, it’s really about how you move people around. We’re only 5 million [visitors] and so many space actually in [around] here, so many things you can visit. So we are still full of potential, still! Either you can spend time in the temples, or you can spend time with the villagers in the park."

Tourism plays a key role in Cambodia’s economy. It contributes 12 per cent to the country’s GDP,
and revenue from it amounts to some 4 billion US dollars. Angkor Wat alone pulled in more than a hundred-million in tourist dollars last year.

"It’s been 25 years since and its surrounding areas have been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. Now, managing the millions of tourists that are coming here is just one part of the job. The other are the conservation efforts, that is not only much sought after here in Cambodia but also beyond its borders in ASEAN."

LONG KOSAL; Spokesman, Authority for the Protection of the Site and Management of the Region of Angkor (APSARA):
"In ASEAN, we can say proudly that we are leading in stone conservation, as well as brick conservation - because why? Because our temples are made of stone and brick. And we have a lot of Asian friends coming over to request us to share our experience."

Fellow ASEAN members such as Indonesia and Thailand have worked together with Angkor Park officials to restore and maintain the ancient religious sites in their own countries. 

One such project is along the Thai-Cambodian border: After their dispute over territory was resolved in 2013, both countries are cooperating on the conservation of temples - such as Preah Vihear - on both sides of the border.

Requests for restoration help have also come from further afield - for example, Syria whose many historic sites have been damaged in the civil war.

As the sun sets another day over Angkor Wat, there’s no let-up in its popularity and importance to Cambodia.

Its people are working hard to ensure that its heritage will remain for future generations to admire - even if you have to share it with others.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Thai soldiers accused of 'burning alive' 2 Cambodians amid border tensions

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 13, 2015 Thailand's military has denied killing two Cambodians citizens by "burning them alive" after they allegedly crossed the border into Thailand illegally last week, following accusations by Cambodian authorities quoted by The Phnom Penh Post:

Cambodian officers said their Thai counterparts informed them that on the night of January 7, four Cambodians illegally crossed the border with intentions of evading taxes on a smuggled motorbike.

“While they were dragging [the motorcycle] across the border, the soldiers shot at them, firing about 10 bullets. But all of the bullets missed so they deployed more soldiers and arrested two Cambodians while the other two escaped. The soldiers then burnt the two men alive in car tires,” said Anh Kamal, deputy military commander in Battambang’s Sampov Loun district.

Since the incident, Cambodian military and police have reported being denied access to the site of the killings. Cellphone photos posted by locals claiming to have seen the spot show two ash-covered indentations side by side.

The charred remains were sent to Bangkok for a biopsy to confirm identities, authorities said. Thailand has not yet officially confirmed the nationality of the deceased men. Its Foreign Affairs Ministry could not be reached.

"Thais ‘admit’ to burn deaths", Phnom Penh Post, January 12, 2015

The article went on to report that a man claiming to be the brother of one of the missing men, saying that they are migrant workers, suspects that his relatives are among the deceased. Furthermore, officials from the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok are working with Thai authorities to identify the bodies, according to an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh, warning that they will "file a complaint" should the remains be indeed from Cambodian citizens.

Meanwhile, Thai officials have denied these allegations in the Bangkok Post:

"We beg the Cambodian side not to speak like this. Making such comments (causes) damage because (Thai-Cambodian) relations, at present, are going well," said a highly placed source in the Burapha Force, which supervises the Thai-Cambodian border. "Use reason and talk. Don't make allegation and then give such information."

"Army denies Thai soliders [sic] confessed to burning 2 Cambodians alive", Bangkok Post, January 12, 2015

The border region between Cambodia and Thailand remains a source of tensions for both countries. It is also the scene of the Thai-Cambodian border dispute over the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear - a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 - which sparked sporadic exchanges of fire between both armies, but deteriorated into several days of fighting in 2011 when at least eight people were killed. In November 2013, the International Courts of Justice upheld a ruling originally made in 1962, awarding Cambodia the sovereignty of the Preach Vihear promontory.

Apart from that, other numerous incidents have resulted in deadly gunfire as well as alleged cases of illegal border crossings, as they involve land encroachment and illegal logging and smuggling of rosewood. The Cambodian human rights organization ADHOC says that 33 Cambodian illegal loggers were killed in 2013 and 45 in 2012 (source). The Cambodian Ministry of Interior on the other hand claims that 69 Cambodians were killed crossing the border illegally in 2013. Thai authorities regularly deny opening fire on illegal border-crossers. The most recent incident last December involved Thai soldiers reportedly shooting on five Cambodian women crossing into Thai territory, killing one.

UPDATE (January 19, 2015): The Phnom Penh Post reported over the weekend that Thai Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn told his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong that the Thai authorities still haven't identified the bodies, thus acknowledging the incident officially for the first time.

Burma, Cambodia 'hail' Thai junta: With neighbors like these...

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 5, 2014

For the Thai military, launching a coup in Thailand is one thing, but maintaining it is a whole other task. Probably one of the hardest jobs for the junta is to seek universal legitimacy from the international community - especially since "the transition of power" was very one-sided, to say the least.

So it comes as no surprise that the international reactions to the coup of May 22, especially from the Western world ranged from concern to condemnation (e.g. from the US and Australia) and sanctions against Thailand (from the EU), while China seized the opportunity for increased engagement with the military junta - which also explains why a group of Chinese businessmen were among the first to meet army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha shortly after the coup.

Despite the backlash from the West, the junta claims* some positive acknowledgment from Vietnam, and it appears that other neighboring countries are equally amicable toward the Thai generals - resulting in some utterly bizarre statements:

Thailand’s military on Friday compared its seizure of power in May to restore stability after months of unrest to the brutal crackdown by Burma’s former junta in 1988 to snuff out a pro-democracy movement.

Thailand’s military justified its intervention by the need to restore stability after months of unrest and demonstrations by pro and anti-government protesters.

Perhaps unwittingly, the deputy chief of the Thai junta likened its seizure of power to one of the darkest chapters in the rule of Burma’s junta, its crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988 when at least 3,000 people were killed. 

“[Burma's] government agrees with what Thailand is doing in order to return stability to the nation. [Burma] had a similar experience to us in 1988, so they understand,” said Tanasak Patimapragorn, supreme commander of Thailand’s armed forces, following a visit to Bangkok by Burma’s army chief General Min Aung Hlaing. (...)

The visit by Burma’s military commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, marks the second by a foreign official since the coup, after that of Malaysia’s defense minister.

-"Thai Junta Compares its Coup to Burma’s 1988 Crackdown", Reuters, July 4, 2014

In a separate meeting with junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Min Aung Hlaing voiced his support for the NCPO solving Thailand's problems. [Burma] understood the situation, said spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhapatipak*.

-"Junta did right thing: Myanmar chief", The Nation, July 5, 2014

*(Side note: Almost all news where foreign envoys supposedly express their "understanding for the political situation in Thailand" are almost exclusively made by a Thai junta spokesman or member - so it's to be taken with a grain of salt.)

A lot can be said about the apparent history-related blind spot not only on the Burmese army's part, but also its Thai counterpart (and we already had a few examples of selective historic knowledge by Thai politicians in the past).

Reuters South East Asia Correspondent Andrew Marshall sums it up best:

In related news, there's also some praise coming from the other side of the Thai border:

In a bid to reinforce the legitimacy of his government amid an ongoing parliamentary boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday looked west for an analogy.

He chose one that didn’t involve a ballot box.

Instead, he pointed to Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order, which was formed after the military’s May coup and immediately began clamping down on dissenting voices, as a suitable parallel.

Both governments had received royal approval, Hun Sen said, and were therefore equally legitimate.

-"Gov’t as legit as junta: premier", Phnom Penh Post, July 4, 2014

Hun Sen's evident approval comes after he criticized the Thai junta for its handling of Cambodian migrant workers amidst a sudden mass-exodus in which an estimated 250,000 Cambodians have returned from Thailand, many out of panic after the junta announced a crackdown on illegal migrant workers and rumors of abuse in police custody.

However, this also follows the release of Veera Somkwamkid, a Thai ultra-nationalist activist who was arrested and jailed in 2011 after illegally crossing the border in late 2010 to claim that a disputed border region belongs to Thailand. Upon Veera's return, 14 Cambodians have been released from Thai custody, but Thai officials have stopped short of stating that this was a prisoner swap.

On one hand, the Thai military states that it is "unfazed" by outside reactions (especially from the West), yet at the same time it seemingly gladly accepts legitimizing praise from other, not-so-democratic countries.

With neighboring rulers like these...!

Thailand lifts ban on Preah Vihear border conflict documentary

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 26, 2013 Earlier this week, the Thai independent documentary “Boundary” or “ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง” (literally “Low heaven, high ground”) on the Thai-Cambodia border dispute around the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear was banned from commercial release by a sub-committee of the Thai national Film and Video Board (see previous coverage) for endangering "national security and international relations" and misinforming an unknowing audience about ongoing legal cases. The Film and Video Board lifted the ban on Thursday, citing a "technical mistake".

Filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol follows a young Thai ex-soldier who took part in the bloody crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests 2010 on his way back to his home village in Sisaket province near the border, where the conflict between Cambodia and Thailand was heating up. The movie also features accounts from locals from both sides of the border and mentions Thailand's other conflicts, such as the insurgency in the Deep South.

Thailand and Cambodia have been in a territorial dispute since the ownership of the ancient Preah Vihear temple was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by International Courts of Justice, where both countries testified last week in seeking a new ruling on the 4.6 sq km area around the World Heritage site from the ICJ. A verdict is expected in October later this year.

In recent years the conflict has escalated into armed clashes between the two countries. Forty people have been killed since June 2008, hundreds injured and thousands of locals displaced. The Preah Vihear issue is also constantly exploited by Thai ultra-nationalists to drum up anti-Cambodia sentiment and pressure military and politicians, driven by the fear of "losing territory to the Khmer".

Reports indicated that the censors might have taken offense at a lot of things in the documentary, including soundbites of Cambodian soldiers and villagers criticizing their Thai neighbors, the stated number of casualties of the 2010 red shirt protests (100 vs. officially 84) and footage from the clashes.

"Boundary" would have been the third movie banned from commercial release in Thailand, along with 2010's "Insect in the Backyard" and 2012's "Shakespeare Must Die". The ban unsurprisingly drew much attention and condemnation, especially from foreign media - such as* AP, The Guardian or The Hollywood Reporter - and on social networks. The movie was screened at small movie festivals in Thailand, and also at the Berlinale earlier this year.

Now it seems things have turned, according to the filmmaker on the movie's Facebook page on Thursday evening:

Ban Verdict Overturned: “Boundary” has been cleared to screen with 18-plus rating

The Film and Video Board, attached to the Office of Cultural Promotion, contacted the filmmaker of Boundary on Thursday to apologize for the “technical mistake” regarding the ban order on Tuesday, April 23. The filmmaker was informed that the ban order was the decision of a sub-committee that in fact has no authority to issue such verdict. Only the main committee has the jurisdiction to do so. When the main committee saw the film on Thursday, April 25, they decided to let the film pass. Also, before banning any movie, the committee is required to allow its director to defend himself, but that didn’t happen on Tuesday.

However, the censors asked the director to remove two seconds of ambience sound in an early scene. That scene is the New Year’s celebration at Ratchaprasong Intersection during which an MC announces on stage: “Let’s count down to celebrate HM the King’s 84th anniversary”. The censors expressed concerns that this might lead to misinterpretation.

The filmmaker realizes that the sound has no significance to the story of the film and agreed to mute it.

The sub-committee who banned the films cited several inappropriate issues and presentation, but the main committee does not object to any of them. Besides those two seconds of audio, the entire film remains intact.

Nontawat Numbenchapol 25 April 2013

(emphasis by me)

A couple of interesting points here: Why does the documentary get an 18+ rating? Also, that part that is to be muted also seems odd - why did the censors take so much offense to it when it bears no significance to the movie? How severely misinterpreted can that part (in Thai "เรามาร่วมเคาท์ดาวน์และร่วมฉลองให้พระบาทสมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัว มีพระชนมายุครบ 84 พรรษา" ) be that it needs to be muted?

What went wrong at the Thai Film and Video Board that allegedly a subcommittee was able to order a ban, while it had no power to do so? And how much did the public backlash affect yesterday's decision?

No details for a release date and locations have been released yet.

* the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also published a press release condemning the ban on Thursday night Bangkok time - just six hours after the ban was already overturned...!