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Fight for the frontier

4 preah vihear

On Monday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, legal teams from Cambodia and Thailand will begin presenting arguments over a small swath of land along the border between the countries.

The long-awaited judicial battle is being waged over a few square kilometres of mountainous terrain next to the Preah Vihear temple, a majestic ruin sitting atop a cliff in the north of Cambodia. The disputed area is about the size of central Phnom Penh, but the history leading up to it goes back more than 100 years – some say further.

At the source of the story sits the temple, and wrapped around it are aspects of most modern conflicts: culture, military exchanges, politics, diplomatic relations, colonialism and nationalism.

What follows is a basic primer on the subject, crafted after consulting court documents and talking to historians, experts and officials involved on both sides.  

When did the conflict over the temple begin?
Seeds of the legal dispute were sown in the early 1900s, when France, which controlled Cambodia as a protectorate, and Thailand, an independent power known then as Siam, signed off on a series of maps that established boundaries between the two Southeast Asian countries.

The French put the temple of Preah Vihear, which was built in honour of the Hindu god Shiva around AD 900, during the reign of Angkorian King Yasovarman, on the Cambodian side of the maps. The matter, for a time, was considered closed.

But, as in other countries with colonial pasts, the trouble began simmering when the colonisers left. In 1953 Cambodia gained independence. Court records show that in 1954 Thai troops temporarily occupied the temple.

“The Thai-Cambodian border was fixed by a commission dominated by the French, and the Thais acquiesced to the French decision to include PV [Preah Vihear] inside Cambodia,” historian and Cambodia expert David Chandler said.

“They [the Thais] waited until the French were gone to say anything, ie: they accepted the border they had agreed to, under unprovable duress.”

The ownership claims, however, may be even older and more complicated, though not as well documented. According to journalist John Burgess, the author of A Woman of Angkor, accounts from the 1920s and 1930s show that Thais in the area treated the temple as a Thai possession. Long before the French colonial period, the Siamese had gained control of the temple as their kingdom expanded its sway in the region. Cambodians, too, have retained strong ties over time.

“The main cliff at the temple is named after Ta Di, said to have been a Khmer commander who threw himself off the cliff rather than submit to capture by a Siamese force that was seizing the temple,” said Burgess, who is working on a book about Preah Vihear.

“At this point, I don’t know whether Ta Di is legend or a documented historical figure, but pretty much all Cambodians in the Preah Vihear area know about him, as do many beyond it. There are two statues of him on the plain below the temple, one at a museum, one near the foot of the ancient eastern steps. Today, Cambodian security people at the temple pray to him (there’s a small shrine to him in a niche right on the cliff’s edge) and see him as the guardian against Thai encroachment.”

When did the case first go to court?
Six years after independence, in 1959, the case went to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and three years later, judges awarded the temple to Cambodia, citing the series of maps – specifically a 1907 map – that had been first produced by French cartographers and which showed Preah Vihear inside Cambodia’s borders.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
One of the RCAF troops stationed at Preah Vihear climbs the steps of the ancient temple in 2011. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

4 preah vihear

The legal disagreement stems from the use, in the creation of the maps more than a century ago, of a watershed line along the eastern sector of the Dangrek mountain range – where the Preah Vihear temple sits – as the basis for demarcating most of the border, but not as the basis for the border area around Preah Vihear. The resulting map, according to court interpretation of the Thai claim, “had never been accepted by Thailand or, alternatively, that if Thailand had accepted it, she had done so only because of a mistaken belief that the frontier indicated corresponded with the watershed line,” and that “the true watershed line would place the temple in Thailand.”

The court disagreed, putting forth the rationale that Thai officials at the time “said nothing”, and that the Siamese Minister of the Interior, Prince Damrong, thanked the French minister in Bangkok for the maps.

“If the Siamese authorities accepted the . . . map without investigation, they could not now plead any error vitiating the reality of their consent,” a court summary of the judgment states.

But the argument today isn’t about the temple. It’s about the land surrounding the temple, right?
Yes and no, because the developments over the temple are the source of the contested land claim. After the ICJ decision in 1962, the controversy cooled for a few decades, until the listing of Preah Vihear on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2008.

Anne Lemaistre, spokeswoman for UNESCO in Cambodia, said “the problem was unforeseen at the time of the preparation of the nomination dossier. To illustrate this, in 2007, during the World Heritage Committee session, a decision was adopted stating that: ‘The State Party of Cambodia and the State Party of Thailand are in full agreement that the Sacred Site of the Temple of Preah Vihear has Outstanding Universal Value and must be inscribed on the World Heritage List as soon as possible. Accordingly, Cambodia and Thailand agree that Cambodia will propose the site for formal inscription on the World Heritage List at the 32nd session of the World Heritage Committee in 2008 with the active support of Thailand.’”

The Thai argument, however, explained by Thailand’s Ambassador to The Hague Virachai Plasai, centres on the map Cambodia submitted in the World Heritage site nomination plan in 2007 in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“That map encroached upon some of our territory in Thailand; that’s why we became aware of the problem,” he said. “I think it is clear that the Thai government is not going to ask for the temple back.
The temple is not an issue now since 1962, the question is the land around it.

“What is surprising about that is that the line that is shown on that map is not the line that they pleaded in the original proceedings,” he added.

Virachai said the difference in the maps amounted to the “the famous 4.6 square kilometres” to the northwest of the temple, cited in reports as the area under contention.

The Cambodian government counters that it has not deviated from the original map used in the first ICJ decision to award Cambodia the temple.

“It has never changed,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers.

What is the status of the area now? Is it safe; is there fighting?
While cross-border clashes between 2008 and 2011 damaged the temple and led to an unknown number of casualties on both sides – an official count was never released – soldiers began redeploying outside of a court-established Provisional Demilitarized Zone last year, and it has been mostly all quiet on the northwestern front, with the exception of troop stirrings and protests against the ICJ jurisdiction on the Thai side, since the redeployment.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed for calm in a speech yesterday, but it is difficult to say what will happen in the short term, as the court won’t deliver its verdict until October or November. The decision will likely have more of an impact in Thailand, where everything Preah Vihear is more of a political tinderbox.

In Cambodia, with the calm in the area since the last round of fighting in 2011, Preah Vihear temple, situated in the province of the same name, and sandwiched between the provinces of Siem Reap and Stung Treng, has once again turned into a tourist destination.

Pheng Sam Oeun, an archaeologist with the National Authority for Preah Vihear, said that tourists are started to stream back to the temple on an average of dozens a day.

“We say to the visitor that nothing happened at the site, they can come any time; we’re open to visitors from 7am to 5pm.”

A temple’s troubled history

9th-12th centuries
Preah Vihear, a temple honouring the Hindu god Shiva, is built on Dangrek mountain range by King Yasovarman as one of many hilltop structures in the Angkor era.

French officials produce maps that place the Preah Vihear temple inside Cambodia. Maps are presented to Thailand, and according to a later court decision no opposition was raised.

Cambodia achieves independence from France. Preah Vihear issue comes to the fore. About a year after independence, Thais briefly occupy Preah Vihear.

International Court of Justice awards Preah Vihear to Cambodia in a decision based on earlier French maps.

UNESCO lists Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site. Tension builds and deadly clashes occur; fighting continues intermittently over next three years.

Ceasefire brokered and Cambodia asks International Court of Justice to interpret its 1962 ruling to deal with the surrounding territory under dispute.

Legal teams from both countries dispatched to International Court of Justice for hearings in April on territory around the temple amounting to 4.6-square kilometres.

Schedule for live stream of ICJ hearings at and

  • Monday: 3pm and 8pm
  • Wednesday:  3pm and 8pm
  • Thursday:  8pm
  • Friday:   8pm


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