Whose line is it anyway?

On April 7, 2011, Cambodia and Thailand are scheduled to meet in Bogor, Indonesia, to try and resolve the long-standing dispute over the Preah Vihear temple complex. This will be the first time that the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will mediate in resolving a border dispute between two of its member states. For more than two weeks in February, there was renewed fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border that left 11 dead and several thousand villagers displaced in the worst exchange of fire since tensions began in July 2008.

While several observers believe that the conflict is to do with unresolved border issues, it is also a result of historical antagonism between the two neighbouring countries over issues of sovereignty and claims of nationalism dictated by the compulsions of each country’s political posturing.
Last week, there were renewed allegations from Cambodia that Thailand has been unwilling to indicate where the observers from Indonesia would be stationed. Moreover, there is some ambiguity on whether the two will have a comprehensive General Border Committee (GBC) meeting or if it will remain at the level of the Joint Boundary Committee (JBC). The minutes of JBC meetings need parliamentary approval. Given the current political impasse in Thailand, there has been little headway in resolving this.
While a temporary ceasefire is in place following meetings of foreign ministers at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), finding a more permanent solution is imperative. This was evident when the Asean appointed an observer team to study the protracted tensions and seek a bilateral resolution. The Asean’s approach at the initiative of Indonesia, which is Asean’s current chair, was endorsed by the UNSC.
The dispute (the battle is over a small piece of land, about 4.6 square kilometres, which surrounds the Preah Vihear temple complex) can be traced back to the period of Cambodian history when the Angkor dynasty extended to areas of modern-day Thailand and Vietnam. For nearly six centuries — from the 9th to the 15th century — the glory of the Angkor dynasty (Khmer) in Cambodian history remained unparalleled. But as the Angkor dynasty weakened, there were inroads into its territorial limits by its two neighbours — Siam ( is modern-day Thailand) and Vietnam. Added to this historical dynamic is the fact that the colonial legacy of French in Cambodia has contributed to the current conflict as several border issues remain unresolved since then.
The Cambodian provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, which is the area of the present conflict, is home to the architectural monuments of Angkor Wat and other temple complexes, of which Preah Vihear is one. (In 2008, the Preah Vihear region was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). These two provinces have changed hands between Thailand and Cambodia following wars between the Angkor and Siamese kingdoms, leading to both countries claiming the territory.
When the French established their colonial hold over the Indo-China region, the modern states of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were established. During the colonial period, the British territories extended to the western borders of Siam (Thailand) and the French administrative authority extended to the eastern borders of Siam. Thailand remained a buffer zone between these two colonial giants. In this context, Thailand’s claims become debatable because it traded off territorial spaces to both Britain and France in exchange for freedom from colonialism.
By the early 20th century, the modern-day maps of the region were clearly established. At the time of the border settlement, which took place in 1907, the territories of Battambang and Siem Reap fell under the French protectorate in Cambodia.
In fact, as recently as the 1940s, these territories, once again, changed hands between the Thai and French rulers. In 1941, after the onset of the Second World War, Thai rulers used the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, which gave an impetus to the nationalist movements, as an opportunity to strike at the vulnerability of the French. This led to the Franco-Siamese War of 1941 in which the French ceded the territories of Battambang and Siem Reap to Thailand. The territories were returned to the French after the war, following the Japanese defeat.

The Thai government took the border dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled that sovereignty over the area belonged to Cambodia. But the Thais have contested this decision on the grounds that it is based on a study of historical practice and customs rather than looking at the demarcation on the basis of the existing watershed. Thailand’s claim was that on the basis of the existing watershed the area would be part of the Thai territory.
If one is to take recourse to international law, then the concept of uti possidetis can be applied to this case. According to uti possidetis, the territoriality of newly sovereign states is to be based on previous administrative boundaries. Given this interpretation, and taking into account the boundary at the time of independence from the French, the disputed territory belongs to Cambodia.
The reality of the colonial legacy is that the administrative zones established by the colonial powers often cut across three parallels — ethnic, tribal and historical territorial boundaries.
These boundaries shifted during the ancient and medieval periods of history when kingdoms and dynasties established their hold over one another and fought for space and power. As a result, the ambiguities of territorial limits cannot be contested using ancient and medieval histories and power structures. That’s why, to avoid this, recognition is given on the basis of administrative zones carved out by the colonial powers.
This, in fact, is one of the critical factors that shape, and resolve, modern-day conflicts in both Asia and Africa where state boundaries often don’t match nationalistic fervour and people resort to using ancient and medieval history as a tool for demanding realignment of regions.
The Asean has always tried to find a solution to issues that challenge the region through consultation and consensus. Addressing bilateral tensions between its members was highlighted in its 2007 charter.
While the realities of political compulsion may not always be absent, the Asean’s approach has been to evolve a framework based on consensus.
In the context of Asean as an observer for the current stand-off between Thailand and Cambodia, it needs to recognise that the resolution of the conflict cannot go against the norms established by international law and the ruling of the ICJ. It would be erroneous to ignore the realities of the colonial legacy and recalibrate territories of modern states on the basis of unbridled nationalistic demands.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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