Fear and hope at border temple in Cambodia

A damp chill cloaks this plateau some 500m above sea level. Fifty- year-old Oum Thang, swathed in a turtleneck shirt, scarf, overcoat, hat and cotton gloves, carefully sweeps up the debris left behind by tourists at a mountain-top temple.

It's a serene morning at Prasat Preah Vihear, a World Heritage site that sits on the border of eastern Thailand and northern Cambodia.

But she feels uneasy. It was just two years ago that she crouched by the cliff edge as Thai and Cambodian troops exchanged mortar fire that roared terrifyingly close.

"I prayed and prayed," she recalls. Villagers huddled next to her wept as they watched their shops burn to the ground in the distance.

Such is the troubled legacy of this Hindu temple, which was built more than 1,000 years ago by the Khmer empire but continues to loom large in a tussle between Thailand and Cambodia today.

The French colonial administration deemed the monument within Cambodian territory, but Thailand occupied it in 1954 after France withdrew from the region.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia. But the dispute over its surrounds remained, and - worsened by nationalist posturing - erupted in armed clashes between 2008 and 2011 that killed more than 20 people.

Two weeks ago, the ICJ convened again to clarify its 1962 ruling and ordered Thai troops out of the "vicinity" of the temple.

Still, the court chose to define the plot only by geological features such as slopes, escarpments and valleys, leaving both nations to demarcate the exact boundary.

While both sides have pledged to keep the peace, the Thai government says its troops will not move out until both countries work out this boundary. Neither will the Thai World Heritage Committee agree to any management plan for the temple before this bilateral negotiation is completed.

Internal politics has a lot to do with it. In 2003.

Thailand under prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra agreed to jointly develop the site with Cambodia. But the plan floundered when Thaksin was ousted in a coup three years later.

Nationalist groups aligned with the anti-Thaksin "yellow shirt" movement rallied against the imminent approval of the temple as a World Heritage site in 2008, raising tensions with border protests.

Thaksin's sister Yingluck has been Prime Minister since 2011. But the same nationalists continue to hound her Puea Thai party, which was forced by massive protests earlier this month to scrap an amnesty Bill that would have allowed the self-exiled Thaksin to return to Thailand.

Chulalongkorn University international relations scholar Puangthong Pawakapan says: "I don't think the Thai government wants to promise anything that would bind it in the future and allow anti- Thaksin groups to attack it. It will be careful when talking about this issue in public."

The lingering uncertainty unsettles many villagers living near the temple.

Cambodian grocery store owner Yem Phirak, 60, whose village was evacuated in 2011 when hostilities broke out, says: "Even after the court verdict, I am still worried. I watched the yellow shirts on the Thai TV channels, and I know they did not accept it."

Across the border, farmer Khamdee Taetang of Phum Sarol village says: "The villagers worry the protesters will do something to upset the Cambodians. That's what happened the last time."

Troops on both sides were reportedly readying for any untoward incident on Nov 11, the day of the verdict, but a cautious calm had settled over the area when The Sunday Times visited four days later.

Tourists clambered over the stone structures, while locals offered incense at its weathered shrines and gazed down on the vast Cambodian plains. Low morning clouds cast a dreamy pall over the buildings, some intact and others covered by vegetation.

Still, there were enough reminders of cross-border tension: The new asphalt road up the mountain was lined with Cambodian military camps and bunkers. The crossing that allows visitors to enter the temple from Thailand - closed after hostilities broke out - remained firmly shut.

And Cambodian policemen on the temple grounds spoke warily of the lights they see at night, believing them to be from Thai military stakeouts in the mountains.

This is partly because there's still a lot of land under dispute. Cambodia, in its ICJ submission, had claimed ownership of 4.6 sq km of land around the temple. The court awarded a promontory - estimated to be under 1 sq km in area - to Cambodia, leaving the rest to bilateral negotiations. Thailand's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Thai soldiers are stationed in sections of the disputed land.

For now at least, people on both sides of the border just want to move on.

Preah Vihear province is one of the poorest regions in Cambodia, where inequality remains high despite the country's strong growth. The temple, which drew 8,100 foreign tourists and 45,900 locals from January to September, represents hope for the future.

Preah Vihear provincial government spokesman Khoy Bun Phan told The Sunday Times of plans to make the cliffside temple a "competitor" of Angkor Wat. The country's more well-known World Heritage site has transformed the town of Siem Reap into a destination bustling with resorts, restaurants and shops.

Preah Vihear's only world-standard accommodation opened near the temple in January to cash in on the potential tourist boom when tensions ease.

Eleven months on, occupancy is still low because "travel agencies are scared", says Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel's general manager Jean-Philippe Lepage.

"We are waiting. We have no choice," he says.

About an hour away in the provincial capital of Tbaeng Meanchey, a more optimistic Mock Sunheng is building a 60-room hotel in anticipation of a surge in Cambodian visitors to the temple after his hotel opens in 2015.

Many expect cross-border negotiations to drag on.

Meanwhile, eminent Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri has proposed that the temple be included in a joint heritage site that will cover parts of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, according to a report in The Nation newspaper.

Associate Professor Puangthong notes wryly: "After years of fighting, and losing so much money in court battles, we come back to the old idea of joint development."

The idea is still a proposal for now. And even though the threat of armed clashes is low, border residents who feel hostage to larger political battles are taking precautions anyway.

Thailand's Phum Sarol village keeps a detailed log of inhabitants and drills them on evacuation procedures.

Preah Vihear temple keeper Oum Thang has stashed away 20kg of rice in case hostilities break out again.

Though she has seen the horrors of Cambodia's civil war and life under the Khmer Rouge regime, the thought of being caught in army crossfire again unnerves her.

"I still feel afraid," she says.

tanhy@sph.com.sg


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