Cambodians, Rightly, Dig In Heels


When I was publisher and editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post I was once sued by then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. I was accused of spreading disinformation and trying to create political instability and, over the years, several Cambodian government officials accused me and my newspaper of attempting to ‘destroy the nation.’

So one thing I’ve never been called is the Cambodian government’s spin doctor. But on the issue of the current border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding Wat Preah Vihear, I’m as angry as the next Cambodian over what we perceive as a Thai-initiated conflict of grossly unjust proportions.

We’re not alone. Since this issue flared up two years ago, I haven’t met an Asian or Western diplomat, foreign aid worker,or expatriate businessman in Phnom Penh who disagrees. Even a few Thai friends have sheepishly expressed support for the Cambodian side on this spat.

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The nagging question that perplexes us all is why Thailand is trying to export its domestic political problems and dump them on poor Cambodia? The feeling here is that if the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts want to fight it out, do so somewhere in Thailand, but don’t use Cambodia as a scapegoat.

The view from Cambodia is simple: the issue of sovereignty over the temple was decided back in 1962, when the case was submitted to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  

If Thailand didn’t want to abide by the court’s ruling, then why did it agree to submit the case in the first place? And why are they groaning now and firing artillery shells at the temple almost 50 years later?

When Thailand says: Well, we controlled the temple in the 1800s and before, the Khmers have a simpler reply: Yes, but we built it! We started construction in the early 9th century, modified and improved it for 250 years and then continued to pray there and celebrate our Gods for another three centuries until it was taken after the capital at Angkor Wat was sacked and looted three times between 1352 and 1431.

Cambodia has no interest in another protracted violent conflict with anybody. The Kingdom is still trying to recover from 30 years of civil war, Pol Pot madness,and the ensuing guerrilla conflict in the 1980s and 1990s that in total cost the lives of over 2.5 million Cambodians and left the country in ruins. Every dollar spent on the military conflict there is a dollar lost for building desperately needed roads, schools, and hospitals.

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