Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Thailand and Cambodia Teeter On War
When troubles erupt in Bangkok (protests, coups, etc.) I often jokingly complain that "nothing ever happens in Isaan," Thailand's laid-back Northeast.
Well, I lied.
After months of standoffs and skirmishes at a flashpoint on the Thai-Cambodian border (about three hours' drive from my town), Thai troops moved in closer to a position held by Cambodian soldiers. As a result, the Prime Minister of Cambodia yesterday rattled his saber, and declared there would be full-scale war if Thailand didn't withdraw its troops from the disputed territory. The deadline was noon yesterday. Apparently, the withdrawal didn't happen and fighting broke out today.
The territory involves a pitiful little patch of 1.8 square miles. The disputed area, near an ancient temple ruin, "Khao Phra Vihan" (or "Preah Vihear" in Cambodian) is comprised of what looks like burnt rock and dead scrub brush on a high, dry, exposed ridge. The BBC , calls it "scrub land." Quite fitting. See my photo below (taken about 2 years ago).
What really is at stake is national pride fueled by a super-heated nationalism on both sides.
Thailand is upset that Cambodia pushed for the temple ruin itself to become a UN World Heritage Site. Indeed, after you walk a mile or so through the miserable scrub land, you come to the edge of an escarpment on which sets a spectatular 1,000 year-old temple ruin. Thailand controled the temple itself until 1962 when the World Court awarded control to Cambodia. However, the exact demarcation lines were left somewhat vague--hence, the ongoing tensions.
Cambodia is hanging onto what they feel is their national pride as well. Until the tensions heated up this year, about 90% of the tourists at Preah Vihear were Thai. One of the first signs that greeted them on the temple grounds was this....
On the sign, "Khmer" is the word Cambodians use when referring to themselves. In fact, the ancient Cambodian empire which built Preah Vihear was called the "Khmer Empire."
So, as usual, seldom is a spat a one-sided affair. It takes two to tango (or tangle, however the proverb goes).
So, I take it back. Sometimes things do happen in Isaan. The last excitement we had in our area was in the 1970's when these jungles were the refuge of many a Communist rebel--some of them fathers and grandfathers of my students! Just a generation or so ago, they were fighting the central Thai government.
So, anyone looking for a laid-back utopian paradise where everyone and every thing is at peace? I thought maybe it was spelled "I-S-A-A-N." I guess it's time to revert back to the original spelling: "H-E-A-V-E-N."