Nationalist agenda stirred ahead of temple meeting

Thai villagers living near the disputed territory around Preah Vihear are demanding that their ''traditional'' farmland be returned to them in a reflection of a nationalist agenda being nurtured on the border.

  • Published: 7/04/2013 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

FLASHBACK: Supporters of the nationalist People’s Alliance for Democracy scuffle with riot police during a march along a highway leading to the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple in September 2009.

They have threatened to stage major protests if the the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awards the disputed area to Cambodia. The ICJ is due to hold its hearings on April 15-19 with a final decision expected in October.

The new agenda of the villagers over Preah Vihear represents a major turnaround after they initially rejected a similar stance taken by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) when the issue was reignited in 2009.

Srisak Walliphodom, a prominent anthropologist and archaeologist who has extensive knowledge of the issue said some villagers in the area planned to organise protests if the ICJ verdict goes against Thailand as many expect. It's likely the PAD would also protest such a decision, possibly alongside the locals.

"In Phumsarol [the nearest Thai village to the Preah Vihear temple], locals have become afraid they will never get their farmland back if the country loses the dispute over the temple," he said.

Villagers living around Khao Phra Viharn National Park, as its known in Thai, in Si Sa Ket and Ubon Ratchathani provinces say the park has caused them hardship over land rights since it was established in 1998. Around 2,000 locals from 15 villages in Kantharalak, Phu Sing and Khun Han districts in Si Sa Ket and Nam Yuen and Na Chaluai districts in Ubon Ratchathani are demanding to be allowed to return to farmlands inside the park, which also encompasses the road leading to the Preah Vihear temple from the Thai side.

The disputed area covers 4.6 square kilometres of land adjacent to the ancient Khmer temple. The area was a staging ground for demonstrations by the PAD and other nationalist groups in 2009 to oppose any move by the ICJ to award Cambodia the land. At the time, most locals were against the boisterous PAD demonstrations and considered them a major nuisance.

But one NGO worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said nationalist groups, including the PAD, have made a consistent effort to fan the flames of villagers' discontent over land issues.

On March 22, a group of villagers submitted a letter to a Thai military unit stationed in Kantharalak district which said in part: "Following a meeting among villagers living along the Thai-Cambodian border, we agree to help the military by setting up villages and farming along the border. At the present time, many villagers have lost their farm land to the national park. While we are prohibited to enter and farm in the area, the Khmer people just encroached into the park and the park officials have not done anything to chase them away. Therefore; Thai villagers would like to set up villages along the border to prevent Khmer people encroaching on Thai territory."

Because of the Preah Vihear dispute, many areas of the park have been closed to the public, but there have been reports that Cambodian villagers have been allowed to cross into these areas. Military and park officials have dismissed these claims.

Wisit Duangkeow, from Phumsarol, said: "We want our land back, not only for farming but also to prevent Cambodians from encroaching on Thai territory."

Mr Wisit said that problems over land began in 1998, but that villagers initially did not have a unified voice.

Villagers at Ban Hauy Chan have been demanding the return of their farmland for more than 10 years, he said, but similar demands weren't made by villagers in Ban Phumsarol until a few years ago. Up until now, he added, government agencies have done nothing to solve their problems.

THE NAME GAME: The patriotic group Muan Chon Seree Thai demonstrates in approval of the English spelling change on TAT signs in Si Sa Ket to the more Thai ‘Khao Phra Wihan’.

"If possible, the national park declaration should be revoked because it will make the country lose territory," said Mr Wisit. "And while Cambodians are able to freely wander into the park, we aren't able to enter the area where we used to live and farm," he said.

While several locals agree with Mr Wisit, many others in the area are unwilling to support nationalist groups looking to latch onto the border dispute to further their causes.

In January this year the nationalist group Dhamma Yatra began a campaign at Ban Sok Kham Pom in Si Sa Ket province to gain support for Thailand's taking possession of the Preah Vihear temple by whatever means necessary.

Villagers in the area opposed the initiative, reasoning that it might lead to violence erupting along the border again. A month later, the same group staged another protest on the road to Preah Vihear, calling for war to end the territorial dispute.

RELOCATIONS

Land rights claims in the area are complicated by the effects of the communist insurgency in Thailand and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Both led to the relocation of locals in several border villages. The relocations were done out of safety concerns, but some villagers say that when the conflicts ended they were barred from their former lands and livelihoods.

Part of the military's justification for preventing the return of villagers to certain areas was that they were heavily mined during the conflicts.

Mr Wisit said that the mines are not a pressing concern for villagers.

"I located and destroyed many mines on my land in the past. The military used to pay us 25 baht for each mine found."

The scheme stopped due to budget concerns, but the villagers continued to look for mines and to farm their land, when possible.

But many more villagers, including Mr Wisit, were relocated after Preah Vihear was officially declared a national park in 1998. He asked why he and other locals could no longer use their land for farming after risking their lives to clear mines from the area.

Yet another matter complicating the lives of locals in the area is the illegal logging of Siamese rosewood inside the park. The issue was looked at in last week's Spectrum, which cited a study from the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department claiming that a major part of the problem is Cambodians sneaking into Thai territory to illegally log rosewood.

Mr Wisit said that locals understand the importance of conserving the forest and protecting rosewood and other large trees. He suggested they be allowed to plant rubber trees, which grow to be very large, on their old land and harvest the latex for income.

Thailand's People's Empowerment Foundation (PEF) has been working with villagers to try to survey the land they claim within the park, but a representative of the group said military and park officials barred them from entering the area.

"The foundation submitted a letter to the prime minister to solve the problem because these people are in desperate need of farmland," said Chalida Tachareonsak of the PEF.

In January of this year, national park officials stopped around 50 villagers from Ban Tai in Kantharalak district who were trying to go to land they had once farmed inside the park.

ISSUE REHEATING

Last month Khao Phra Viharn National Park was closed indefinitely _ ostensibly because of heavy smoke in the area, but more likely to prevent nationalist groups from staging political activities there. A final decision is not expected until possibly October, but Preah Vihear comes into the limelight once again in little over a week, when both countries present documents and verbal arguments backing their claims from April 15 to 19 at ICJ headquarters at The Hague.

In 1962, the court awarded the temple to Cambodia. In 2008 Cambodia was also successful in its bid to list Preah Vihear as a Unesco world heritage site, despite strong opposition from the Thai government, which wanted a joint listing. Tensions over the issue resulted in both countries positioning troops along the border and there have been several altercations, the worst in February 2011 when artillery fire was exchanged and there were deaths on both sides.

Thailand's argument is that Cambodia has sovereignty over the ruins, but not the surrounding 4.6 sq km plot of land. In 2011 Cambodia the sought ICJ's interpretation on this matter.

Nationalist groups and some academics are urging the government and the general public to ignore the ICJ's ruling if it favours Cambodia, while many other voices say that as a member of the international community, Thailand must respect the court's ruling whatever it is.

Veerachai Palasai, Thai ambassador to the Hague and leader of the legal team defending the Thai position on Preah Vihear, expressed optimism over the eventual outcome.

"This case is an interpretation of the old 1962 ruling, which did not involve the disputed 4.6 sq km. It is a separate issue," he said. The ambassador said the 1962 ruling which gave sovereignty over the temple to Cambodia also required the removal of Thai armed forces from the shrine and a return of all ancient artefacts from the temple (in the hands of Thais) to Cambodia.

The Thai government strictly followed the rulings in those days, said Mr Veerachai. The government then put up a fence to mark the boundary of the temple grounds, with no opposition from the Cambodian government. He added that his team had submitted a 1,500-page report and other documents and items of evidence to support the Thai argument in the ICJ case.

However, anthropologist Mr Srisak was not optimistic about the chances of a Thai victory.

He believes the country will ultimately have to concede defeat at The Hague. He also foresees future territorial problems between Thailand and Cambodia due to old mapping problems. Mr Srisak said Thailand needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with territorial issues, and expressed hope that areas can be established where citizens from both countries can celebrate their cultural similarities.

About the author

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Writer: Tunya Sukpanich
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