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In Preah Vihear Temple, 50 Years of Conflict

The stone remains of Preah Vihear, built nearly 1,000 years ago, are supposed to be a protected U.N. World Heritage site. Instead they are at the heart of a dangerous tug-of-war between Cambodia and Thailand.

In the past 46 years, Cambodia and Thailand have clashed off and on over Preah Vihear temple. But the border dispute has been increasingly motivated by nationalism in both countries.

Tensions spilled over into intense fighting along the border between Feb. 4 and Feb. 7, leading the foreign ministers to the UN Security Council on Monday.

Experts say the heart of the matter is Preah Vihear temple itself, an 11th-Century structure built when the Khmer empire spread far outside the borders of today’s Cambodia but which some Thai political groups have said belongs to Thailand.

“The roots of this conflict go back to 1962, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia,” according to Vinita Ramani Mohan, director of Access to Justice Asia.

That court decision stemmed from a request by then prince Norodom Sihanouk, who wanted Thai forces to leave the temple after a long occupation. The court declared the temple as Cambodian, paving the way for its 2008 Unesco World Heritage listing.

However, the listing ignited a fresh wave of Thai nationalism and protests in Bangkok and on the border and led to a build-up of troops and intermittent fighting by both sides.

“The July 2008 listing of the temple as a Unesco World Heritage site is likely to have angered Thailand, which has continued to claim the temple as sovereign property,” Mohan told VOA Khmer in an email.

Moreover, Cambodia’s submission to Unesco of a development plan for the temple and 4.6 kilometers of disputed land nearby in August 2010 likely escalated the situation further, she said.

Cambodia claims the land west of the temple following treaties between what was then Siam and the French at the turn of the 20th Century. Thailand claims the same land under a map it says is more modern.

Asean has sought to intervene in the dispute, but Homan told VOA Khmer the regional body has traditionally “lacked teeth.”

Meanwhile, the Thai People’s Alliance for Democracy, whose heavy protests unseated a Thai administration in 2009, has taken a strong stance on the temple and is now pressuring the current Thai administration on its handling of the border issue.

Thai claims to the land near the temple, or even the temple itself, have run afoul of Cambodia’s claims to legal ownership of the land. Both sides have claimed the other instigated the fighting earlier this month. Cambodia reported seven people, including two civilians, killed in the fighting and petitioned to address the Security Council.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told the Security Council Thailand had instigated the latest round of violence and used munitions like cluster bombs that were endangering the population.

And while Thailand has said it is still seeking a bilateral solution to the dispute, Cambodian officials have said they no longer feel two-way talks will help.

Meanwhile, the dispute drags on, leaving people displaced from the area of the fighting and costing both countries in lost trade.

“Fifty years later, there is a repetitive story,” said Chhang Youk, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.