Fanning the poisonous airs of nationalism

August 5, 2008 at 8:50 am Leave a comment

THERE IS nothing like a disputed place to bring incendiary nationalism to the boil. The mother of all examples is Jerusalem. Much of the energy of Europe was taken up in trying to wrest it from Muslims from the 11th to the 14th centuries. Today we are told there will be no progress in settling the 100-year dispute between Jews and Arabs in the Palestinian territories this year because of disagreements over the holy city.

But nations can face off over less exalted territory. Think of the predawn assault by Spanish commandos in July 2002, to force Moroccan soldiers off an uninhabited rock in the Mediterranean. Secretary of State Colin Powell got on the phone to calm the situation, and no one got hurt. The Spanish call the islet “Perejil,” while the Moroccans call it “Leila,” and both think it’s theirs.

A lot of people got hurt when Britain and Argentina went to war over the Falklands in 1982, islands that the Argentines call “Malvinas.” It is said that Britain could have resettled the entire population of the Falklands in Scotland for less money than the war cost, but, of course, it had become a matter of national pride, which Argentina lost.

The latest such face-off comes between Thailand and Cambodia over the ancient Khmer temples of Preah Vihear, recently named by UNESCO as a “world heritage site.”

The temple complex was built between the ninth and 11th centuries, during the heyday of the Khmer empire, before the Thais pushed down in force from China into Southeast Asia. But the Thais soon asserted sovereignty over Preah Vihear, as well as the better known temples of Angkor Wat.

The coming of European colonialism put the squeeze on Thailand, from the British in Burma, and the French in Cambodia and Laos. Thailand maintained its independence, the only country in Southeast Asia to do so, but French Cambodia gained control over both temples.

Preah Vihear is physically more attached to Thailand on the edge of a 1,640-foot cliff overlooking Cambodia. In 1904 the French and the Siamese, as the Thais were then called, convened a boundary commission that seemed to set the border on the watershed, which would have put Preah Vihear inside Thailand. But a subsequent French map in 1907 put Preah Vihear inside Cambodia.

When France fell to the Germans in 1940, Thailand saw a chance to seize western Cambodia. The Vichy French colonial government, which had made a deal to let Japan use its territory against China, reacted militarily and a short war with Thailand followed in January 1941 – a tiny sideshow to the Second World War that was rapidly unfolding. An inconclusive land battle, involving French and colonial “Tirailleurs,” was followed by a naval encounter in the Gulf of Siam, which the French decisively won. The French dropped a couple of bombs on Bangkok, too.

The Japanese stepped in to arbitrate, and gave much of western Cambodia to Thailand, which took pieces of British territory, too. But the eventual Allied victory in 1945 forced Thailand to disgorge its French and British territories, and Preah Vihear returned to Cambodia.

No sooner had the French given up their Indochina empire in 1954, however, than the Thais moved back into Preah Vihear. They stayed for seven years until an independent Cambodia took Thailand to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 1962.

Cambodia’s case was ably argued by former secretary of state Dean Acheson, and the court ruled in Cambodia’s favor. It seems, however, that the court decision left ambiguous the fate of 1.8 square miles around the temple, and it is over that bit that Thai and Cambodian troops faced one another this summer. The poisonous airs of nationalism were fanned by ambitious politicians in both countries.

The International Court of Justices decision was based on geography and maps, and not over whose culture the temples belong in, but there is no earthly reason that Preah Vihear shouldn’t belong to Cambodia with an open border for tourists to reach it from the more accessible Thai side – except for the fact that national passions can usually be counted upon to rise above reason.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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Entry filed under: Preah Vihear Issue.

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