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Stories in Stone: The Cambodia-Thailand Dispute

L to R: Sos Kem, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, and John Burgess discuss the Preah Vihear temple conflict between Cambodia and Thailand at Asia Society Washington DC on March 31, 2011.

L to R: Sos Kem, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, and John Burgess discuss the Preah Vihear temple conflict between Cambodia and Thailand at Asia Society Washington DC on March 31, 2011.

WASHINGTON DC, March 31, 2011 – The current border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia is "entirely over nationalism," says author John Burgess.

In conversation with panelists Thitinan Pongsudhirak, from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Sos Kem, retired journalist from Radio Free Asia,  Burgess discussed how this conflict over a 12th century Hindu temple along the border is simply one part of an ongoing rivalry between the two nations, and how it plays an important role in Thai domestic politics.

Burgess, author of the recently published book Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History, gave a brief overview of the history surrounding these temples, detailing the rise of the Khmer empire and how Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear, and other monuments of this ancient civilization were built. 

Preah Vihear, a hotly disputed territory between Cambodia and Thailand, has been in the international spotlight before — first in 1959, when Cambodia petitioned for it in the Hague, and then in 2008 when fighting broke out over UNESCO's decision to declare the holy ground a World Heritage Site. 

Professor Thitinan presented the confrontation within the scope of current domestic Thai politics, with different political factions such as the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts in contention with each other. He described Cambodia as being a "pawn" in Thai politics. He also questioned why Preah Vihear has gotten so much attention and not the Sdok Kok Thom temple, which Burgess wrote about in his book.

Sos Kem presented the Cambodian side of the conflict, and explained why Cambodians feel the need to assert ownership over this temple. He explained how the country has lost so much territory in the past to foreign powers such as Thailand and Vietnam, and that holding onto Preah Vihear is a way of demonstrating their independence from outside influences.

Both the speakers and the audience agreed that more needs to be done to raise awareness of both sides of the conflict so that future disputes like this do not occur.

Reported by Adrian Stover