Why (if at all) Wat Preah Vihear Matters

In the past, Thai kings like their counterparts in Vietnam and Cambodia had little real interest in geographical borders on maps. The land was difficult to cross and the population was thinly spread away from the main urban centres. The power of a king depended on his ability to mobilize an army or the labour to build a monument or a new town. This power largely relied on the king’s relations with princes and governors of other towns.

This changed during the colonial period. The French, colonizing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, started to draw maps of the region and to use western methods to work out who owned what and where. The Thai court went along with this with the usual endless compromising and ‘bamboo diplomacy,’ largely because it seemed irrelevant.

So, we have today’s situation in which the border is uncertain and disputed. Jungle and mountains do not matter much but the situation of Wat Preah Vihear is different. The Cambodian government is trying to get this wat, which is a particularly fine specimen of its type, recognised by the United Nations (in the form of UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site and has submitted a map to the Thai government showing that it is within Khmer territory.

This will be agreed sooner or later since there is little doubt that the wat is actually of Khmer provenance and the Cambodian people are very twitchy about these things – it was only a couple of years ago that a few comments made by a Thai actress supposedly claiming the wat as Thai rapidly led to anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh and the burning of Thai businesses.

While the people may get worked up about who owns the wat, the real issue lies in the Gulf of Thailand. Both sides are aware that there are more reserves of oil and gas to be located in the Gulf in seas which are not definitely allocated either to Cambodia or Thailand. The real importance of the negotiations, therefore, is to act as a precedent for dividing the seas and the precious hydrocarbons lying waiting underneath them.