Q&A: Thailand-Cambodia temple dispute

Preah Vihear temple
Image caption The Preah Vihear temple was made a UN World Heritage site in 2008

A row over territory around the 11th Century border temple of Preah Vihear continues to strain ties between Thailand and Cambodia. The BBC looks at the background to the dispute.

Who owns the temple?

The Hindu temple was awarded to Cambodia by a 1962 ruling at the International Court of Justice, which both countries accepted at the time. Thailand does not officially claim ownership of the temple - the dispute is over the area surrounding it. Thailand says the ICJ ruling did not rule on the border, only on the temple itself.

The geography of the area makes sovereignty a particularly complicated issue. The temple is perched on top of a cliff, hundreds of feet above the Cambodian jungle. It has direct transport links to Thai towns and cities, and tourists can visit the temple from Thailand without the need for visas.

In fact, until 2003 access from Cambodian territory was possible only via a gruelling hike through jungle and mountains. In 2003 a road opened connecting a Cambodian town to the temple.

How long has the dispute been running?

The temple has been at the centre of a border dispute for more than a century. Maps drawn by Cambodia's French colonial rulers and Thailand (or Siam, as it was then known) early in the 20th Century showed the temple as belonging to Cambodia, but in later decades Thailand said the maps were not official and were therefore invalid.

The ICJ granted the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but the decision rankled Thailand. The dispute was largely moribund for decades as Cambodia plunged into a civil conflict that lingered until the 1990s.

The issue escalated again when Cambodia applied for it be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008. Thailand wanted it to be a joint Thai-Cambodia listing, but eventually withdrew its objection. The decision enraged Thai nationalists and both sides began a build-up of troops in the area.

In April 2009, soldiers exchanged fire across the disputed border. More serious trouble flared in February 2011, when at least eight people were killed in several days of fighting. The violence moved westwards to another set of temples in April, before shifting back to Preah Vihear, as widespread clashes forced tens of thousands to flee.

Is anyone trying to sort out the dispute?

In February 2011 Cambodia took the case to the UN Security Council, which then referred it to regional bloc Asean. Indonesia, as then-president of Asean, led mediation efforts. Both sides said they would allow access to Asean monitors.

However, Asean could do nothing to prevent further fighting flaring up again in April and talks between the leaders of the two countries failed to break the deadlock.

In April, Cambodia returned to the ICJ and requested it clarify its 1962 ruling. In July, the ICJ designated a demilitarised zone around the temple and ordered troops from both countries to leave the area.

Hearings at the ICJ began in April 2013. The court is set to rule on 11 November 2013.

Why is the temple so important?

The Hindu temple was built mainly in the 11th and 12th centuries, by the same Khmer civilisation that built Angkor Wat. The Khmers dominated the region for five centuries. As Cambodia has a tragic recent history of genocide and civil war, politicians often look to the glorious distant past to inspire nationalist sentiment.

And Cambodian nationalists often use Thailand as a bogeyman to stoke nationalist fervour - charting a litany of wrongs such as the successive Thai invasions that helped destroy the once mighty Khmer empires and rendered the country defenceless against French colonial conquest in the 19th Century.

Thailand also took advantage of the chaos during World War II to occupy large chunks of western Cambodia, including the temples at Angkor Wat. It was forced to hand them back when the war ended.

The Thai military often treated Cambodian refugees who fled the civil wars of the 1970s and 80s harshly - and Thailand backed the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in their struggle against the Vietnamese occupation, so helping prolong the civil war.

On the Thai side, the Khmer civilisation profoundly influenced Thai culture, and there are many famous Khmer-style temples in Thailand. In recent years, a powerful nationalist lobby allied to the military has helped drive a more muscular foreign policy agenda in Thailand.

The temple is also only one of several areas where the two countries disagree on where the border is. The maritime border is the subject of a dispute - and one which affects the development of oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand. The two sides had reached agreement on joint development, but the deal was then scrapped by the administration of former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

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