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Border Conflict Helped by Ignorance: Scholar

Cambodia says the 11th-Century temple was damaged by Thai artillery in border clashes in February and has asked Unesco to assess the damage.
Cambodia says the 11th-Century temple was damaged by Thai artillery in border clashes in February and has asked Unesco to assess the damage.

While Cambodia and Thailand continue their protracted dispute over the border, scholars in the US said last week both neighbors should look deeper into their history and remove internal politics to ease the tension.

John Burgess, a longtime Washington Post reporter who has written a book about a Khmer temple in modern Thailand, told an audience in Washington last week the current crisis will ease once Thailand’s internal political situation calms and once Cambodia’s system of government opens up.

Burgess, author of “Stories in Stones: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History,” told the Asian Society the situation would be calmer without Thais “thronging the streets and citing the loss of land to Cambodia” as a point of contention with the ruling administration.

While acknowledging that Thai-Cambodian conflicts have deep roots, he also noted that both countries have little understanding of their related histories. Students in Thailand know little about the history of Angkor Wat, while Cambodians remain unaware of their religious ties to Thailand, he said.

“I’ve always been shocked at how ignorant the two sides are of each other,” said the author, who became interested in the Sdok Kok Thom temple, near Aranyaprathet, Thailand, while covering Cambodian refugees in 1979. “Other than these wars that everybody knows about, there is basically almost zero comprehension on both sides of the border.”

Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of the Chulalongkorn University, who was a speaker at the discussion, agreed, saying both countries need to rewrite their textbooks and stop stereotyping each other.

“If you take the government and army aside in that area, people are okay,” he said. “They’ve been trading from 1962 to 2008 without a problem. In fact Thais can visit the temple and Cambodians vice versa, and foreign tourists.”

Now, however, troops from both sides are locked in a border standoff, one that has led to skirmishes and killings since 2008. Nationalistic groups in Thailand have seized on the border issue in an attempt to oust different administrations in Thailand since that time, while Cambodian officials have accused Thailand of attempting to take Cambodian land.

Thitinan said Cambodia had become a “pawn” in Thai politics, which are now heading toward an election, with anti-government protesters hoping to oust the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Kem Sos, an independent analyst, agreed.

“There’re a lot of emotion, a lot of muscle, not much wisdom, not much legal procedure to solve the problem,” he said.