Patriotism is a positive force when it inspires people to give their best for their country. But this unifying power becomes destructive once it turns into hyper-nationalism.
Thailand and Cambodia should ask themselves what is at play _ patriotism or hyper-nationalism _ when they are fighting over a small piece of land surrounding the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple which is called Preah Vihear by Cambodians and Khao Phra Viharn by Thais.
Both Thailand and Cambodia like to describe themselves as proud Buddhist countries. They are among a very few countries adhering to Theravada Buddhism which is based on Buddha's original teachings, not interpretations by later teachers.
Buddhism is not the only thing they share. Both have just finished celebrating the same traditional New Year with the same water-splashing fun. The Thai language contains countless Khmer words which reveal long and close cultural exchanges dating back centuries before the advent of national boundaries.
But instead of observing Buddhist values on goodwill and celebrating common ties, they keep arguing over who "owns" what temples, what traditional dances and arts, what food, and what customs.
As Buddhists, they should know the "me and mine" and obsession with ownership is the main driver of endless cycles of conflicts, one of which is unfolding now at The Hague. The oral statements from both countries on the territorial dispute at the International Court of Justice may appear as rational arguments based on different sets of facts.
The legal battle, however, is essentially a continuation of the traditional rivalry between Thailand and Cambodia. It is driven by age-old resentment, anger and hatred which is against Buddhist teachings and perpetuated by systemic brainwashing through national history based on ethno-nationalism in both countries.
In Thailand, successive generations have been taught the same textbook history which focuses on territorial warfare with nearby kingdoms and instills prejudice and hatred towards neighbouring countries in young minds. Consequently, it takes only a small incident which hurts the national ego to trigger fanatical outrage, threats of war and senseless deaths. Ultra-nationalist Thai history does not only cause problems with neighbouring countries, it is also at the heart of conflicts in the restive South. By fostering the belief that Thailand is a racially homogenous country of ethnic Thais, other ethnic groups are treated as second-class citizens, such as the southern Malay Muslims. The forest peoples and highlanders, meanwhile, are denied their legal rights. Ethnic prejudice is also the reason why exploitation of migrant labour is generally seen as a non-issue by both authorities and the general public.
Calls for reform of the education sector to make the system more accountable, efficient, decentralised and conducive to independent thinking are common, and make good sense. But it is equally important to do away with ethnocentrism and ultra-nationalism in textbook history. This applies to both Thailand and Cambodia. Commonalities _ not traditional rivalry and hatred _ should be what both countries focus on if they want this region to be stronger economically and more competitive in the world arena.
Peace, a prerequisite of economic stability and growth, is hard to find under hyper-nationalism. This dangerous engine of prejudice and hatred must be brought to an end if the goal is to grow economically without hiccups from ethnic violence or wars with neighbours.