PREAH VIHEAR – In the dusty frontier town of Sra Em, 27 kilometers from the Thai border and the disputed Preah Vihear Temple area, the sense of Cambodian nationalism is perhaps more palpable than anywhere else in the country.
In the many restaurants and beer gardens that line the town’s two roads, off-duty soldiers drink to chants of “Preah Vihear! Kampuchea!” Army camouflage is en vogue, with caps, vests and other military attire donned proudly by the town’s residents.
A tourist policeman at the temple ticket office wears a hat emblazoned with “ICJ 1962” – a reference to the International Court of Justice verdict that recognized Cambodian sovereignty over the temple more than 50 years ago.
The temple itself – a magnificent, crumbling Angkorian wonder perched atop a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains – was placed within Cambodia borders on French colonial maps dating back to 1907. These maps were used successfully by the Cambodian delegation at the 1962 hearings – the results of which have long been a sore point for Thai nationalists.
In 2008, Cambodia ignited a tinderbox in Thailand, applying to have the temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as political turmoil engulfed its northerly neighbour.
Thailand does not dispute Cambodia’s claim to the temple, but both sides are now contesting 4.6 square kilometers of adjacent land at the ICJ after Cambodia requested an interpretation of the original ruling in 2011.
Without an ICJ verdict, there could be “unfortunate consequences which would prevent the two states from living in a friendly, peaceful and cooperative environment,” Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told the court at the opening of proceedings on Monday.
With troops remaining entrenched on both sides of the border, local residents say they will wait for government orders to evacuate if fighting breaks out again.