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Preah Vihear 'not a Hindu monument'

Dear Editor,

My attention has been drawn to your reporting of events concerning the temple of Preah Vihear over the past week. I notice that your reporters have referred to Preah Vihear as being “a disputed 11th century Hindu monument”.

May I point out that the temple of Preah Vihear is not a “Hindu monument” but a Khmer sanctuary, built by Khmer kings and dedicated to Shiva the Hindu god. Indeed, construction of the temple was began under the rule of the Khmer King Yasovarman I (889-910AD) and completed during the rule of one of his successors, King Suryavarman II (1113-1145).

It should be understood that for past Khmer kings, a sanctuary was first and foremost a cosmological recreation. Thus, the construction of Khmer sanctuaries in the form of multi-tiered Pyramids meant that the place was considered a sacred cosmic mountain. This was particularly noticeable in the temples dedicated to Shiva, because of the association with the god’s mountain home, Mount Kailasa. A mountain or a cliff top location, as in the case of Preah Vihear, was always the first choice for the Khmer architects building these major temples.

The fact that Preah Vihear is a Khmer sanctuary and not a “Hindu monument” has been extensively acknowledged by most experts in Khmer architecture including in such books published in Thailand by Thai authors like Professor S. Siribhadra of Silpakorn University in Bangkok in 1992, Dr Dhida Saraya in 1994 and by the Italian author Vittorio Roveda in 2000.

There is no dispute over the temple itself but rather over surrounding land that is claimed by both Cambodia and Thailand. The temple has always been Khmer, except for a period when it was occupied by Siam from 1431 to 1907. In 1431, under the reign of the Siamese King Chao Saam Phraya (Boromrajadhiraj II) who ruled from 1424 to 1448, in what is known as the Ayutthaya period of Siamese (Thai) history, the armies of Siam defeated the Khmer armies and forced the evacuation of Angkor and the capital of the Khmer Empire was moved to Oudong and then to Phnom Penh.

The Siamese armies occupied Battambang, Sisophon, Siemreap-Angkor as well as Preah Vihear and they were annexed into Siam.

On March 23, 1907, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) signed the Franco-Siamese boundary treaty with the President of France, by which Siam agreed to return Battambang, Sisophon, Siemreap-Angkor as well as Preah Vihear to Cambodia, under French protectorate, in exchange for Chantaburi, Trat and the land of Dan Sai in Loei province of today’s Thailand.

According to the American scholar Lawrence Palmer Briggs and to other French scholars, Siam had made no attempt to colonize the provinces or to convert its citizens into Siamese subjects. Indeed, during the whole period of Siamese suzerainty this region was the hereditary fief of a Cambodian family and was ruled according to Cambodian customs and few could speak the Siamese language, using always Khmer to communicate.

Thailand took advantage of the Second World War to regain part of the territory that it had previously returned to Cambodia, under French protectorate. However, with the defeat of the Japanese and the end of hostilities French authority was restored in Indochina and in 1946 by the treaty of Washington, Thailand ceded the border provinces back once again.

In 1953, when King Norodom Sihanouk obtained full independence for Cambodia and refused to join the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), Thailand, under the pretext to strengthen its border, established a police post in the Dangrek mountain range, just north of Preah Vihear temple and hoisted the Thai flag over the temple and expelled the Cambodian officials posted to the temple by the Royal Cambodian government.

Cambodia sent several diplomatic notes to Thailand seeking a negotiated solution of the problem but Thailand did not reply until August 1958 when negotiations were held in Bangkok but ended in failure.

At that time, in a gesture to keep the friendship between the two countries, Cambodia proposed two solutions to Thailand: a) the joint administration of the Khmer sanctuary; and b) that the matter be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

As Thailand did not reply to the Cambodian proposal, in October 1959, King Norodom Sihanouk decided to bring the matter to the International Court of Justice for adjudication.

Commenting on Cambodia’s decision to take the case to the ICJ, the leading Bangkok newspaper Siam Rath editorialized as follows:

“If Cambodia has taken this matter to the ICJ, we cannot prevent her from doing so. It is her right to do it. She is in her right because the ICJ is an organ of the United Nations having the mission of peacefully settling differences between its members.… As for the Thai government, faced with this correct attitude on the part of the Cambodian government, it should accept it in a friendly spirit and with the honesty worthy of a member of the United Nations.”

On June 15th 1962, the judgment of the ICJ was announced. By nine votes in favor and three against, it held that Preah Vihear was under the sovereignty of Cambodia. The ICJ urged Thailand to immediately withdraw any military, police and any other guards or keepers from the site.

Thailand was disappointed by the ICJ’s judgment. It withdrew its Ambassador from France and its delegations from the SEATO Council and the Geneva Conference on Laos, in protest to what it felt was the “uncooperative behavior of some of its SEATO allies”, members also of the ICJ, and which had voted for Cambodia.

The Thai Foreign Minister at the time, Mr Thanat Khoman, rejected the ICJ ruling on behalf of the Thai government and wrote to U Thant, the UN Secretary General, expressing his government’s reservations but providing no new legal argument which would back up the Thai government’s reservations.

Furthermore, and I think this is of fundamental importance, he attached to his letter to U Thant, a map in which it was clearly stated: “The map representing the area where the Temple of Preah Vihear (Pra Viharn in Thai language) is situated, over which Thailand has relinquished her sovereignty”.

I fear that by continuing to refer to Preah Vihear as a “disputed 11th century Hindu monument” your esteemed newspaper is contributing to the misunderstanding existing over the sovereignty of the temple which has always been a Khmer temple, built by Khmer rulers in honor of a Hindu god.

Yours sincerely,

Ambassador Julio A. Jeldres

Official Biographer of HM the King Father

Samdech Preah Upayuvareach Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia;

Research Fellow, Monash University’s Asia Institute



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