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A paradox of nationalism

Dear Editor,

In recent weeks, Cambodia and Thailand have experienced another tense moment in their roller-coaster relationship as both countries pleaded their case on the Preah Vihear dispute at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The first time the two countries took the issue to the ICJ was in 1962, when the court ruled, by nine votes to three, in favour of Cambodia. Following that ruling, there were several diplomatic and military clashes.

The latest military stand-off occurred between 2008 and 2011, following Cambodia’s successful move to have the Preah Vihear temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As war became imminent, Cambodia felt compelled to bring the dispute back to the ICJ, requesting that the court interpret its 1962 ruling.

Some analysts doubt the dispute will be put to rest by the pending verdict. Some ultra-nationalist Thai groups have made it clear they intend to ignore the court’s ruling if it is not in Thailand’s favour.  

Few doubt the ability of these groups to re-ignite tension with Cambodia if they’re not satisfied with the court’s decision.

The question is, how far they will push the envelope at the risk of further damaging the image and interests of their own country?

Nationalism is a well-oiled machine in Thailand, just as it is in Cambodia, but it’s important to point out a key difference.

In Cambodia, the so-called nationalist view and interpretation of history with neighbouring countries are based on numerous independent studies and documents published by credible Western scholars and researchers.   

Thai nationalist sentiment, on the other hand, is predominantly influenced by books written by Thai historians under various forms and degrees of de facto censorship.  

Some Thai scholars have called for the teaching of Thai history to be comprehensively reformed.

As university professors Thamrongsak Petchlertana and Akkhaphong Khamkhun put it:  “The teaching of Thai history . . . should be reformed to eradicate Thais’ superiority complex and condescending attitude, mistrust and even hatred towards their closest neighbours. ”

Cambodia is cautiously hopeful that this view will gain widespread support within the Thai mainstream, and that Thailand will be resilient enough to withstand fake nationalism and persuade Thai nationalist groups to close this epic but pointless chapter of Preah Vihear for good.
 
Davan Long
Montreal, Canada

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