Old maps and new can easily chart a course of disaster

Old maps and new can easily chart a course of disaster

A political drama emerged when Vietnamese authorities refused to stamp Chinese passports featuring a map that includes disputed islands in the South China Sea labelled as Chinese territory. Instead, visas were issued on a separate piece of paper.

To Vietnam, stamping visas in these newly designed Chinese passports could mean indirect recognition of Chinese sovereignty over the islands. The Philippines, another claimant to the disputed islands, also protested about the map on the Chinese passports.

Meanwhile, India is furious as the Chinese passports also incorporate their disputed territory near the Sino-Indian border as part of China. In retaliation, India has started to issue visas to Chinese citizens with a map of India that includes all territories claimed by New Delhi.

Maps have long been a powerful device in the expansion and protection of national sovereignty.

The Chinese are known to be masters of map reproduction.

Maps have become favourite souvenirs given to visitors to China. Each time maps are reproduced, Chinese territory is enlarged. In colonial times, maps were used to identify spheres of hegemonisation of the European powers.

Today, maps serve a similar purpose as a symbol of territorial integrity and sovereign rights.

But maps are not the only instrument in inculcating a sense of nationhood and the power of the political rulers. Historic sites and buildings have become landmarks of ownership too.

After winning the Preah Vihear case in the International Court of Justice in 1962, which ruled that the ancient temple belonged to Cambodia, the Cambodian government printed the image of the disputed temple on the back of its 2,000 riel banknotes. The purpose was to reiterate Cambodia's rightful ownership of Preah Vihear.

As part of defending what are meant to be their territories and properties, nations also depict themselves as being under constant threat posed by outsiders. Many countries around the world have often claimed to have lost territory or property so as to justify the need to regain them.

In a classic case, foreign powers or immoral neighbours were usually blamed for stealing national territories or properties unjustly. Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul observed that Lao nationalists talk about losing Isan to Thailand. Cambodians talk about losing territories to Thailand and Vietnam.

They produce maps of lost territories like Thai nationalists did for generations. Thais have been taught that their territories were lost as well.

Every country has lost territory. The idea of loss is a powerful tool used to whip up nationalism, especially in domestic politics.

Arriving in power in 1938, Field Marshal Plaek Pibunsongkram began the process of re-glorifying Siam's history and revived the issue of lost territories to legitimise his military regime.

He embarked on a campaign to recover lost provinces from the French. He closely collaborated with Luang Wichit Wathakan, a prolific nationalist writer and composer, to reconstruct Thai history, one that portrayed the country's vulnerability and at the same time its greatness in the past.

The Plaek government then printed a Siamese map which showed Cambodia as being historically a Siamese territory.

It also claimed the Siamese and Khmers were one and the same people. France had to warn Plaek against harbouring any designs on Cambodia.

The need to highlight the issue of lost territories in the country's history has been to ignite a sense of nationalism among the people, and to seek their support, compliance and submission in regards to state policy.

In reality, leaders could have been facing a legitimacy crisis and thus exploiting the issue of lost territories to cover up their shortcomings.

In January 2003, the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was burned down by Cambodian nationalists.

A few days earlier, a local Cambodian newspaper reported that Suvanand Kongying, a famous Thai actress, declared that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.

Her alleged statement immediately stirred up great resentment inside Cambodia.

Prime Minister Hun Sen angrily responded that Suvanand was not even worth a blade of grass at Angkor.

However, the underlying message was not really about protecting the dignity of Cambodia's territorial integrity.

A Cambodian general election was around the corner and the conflict with Thailand could have been used to favour or undermine certain political factions.

The opposition party condemned Hun Sen for his plot to divert the public's attention away from his government's inability to wipe out corruption and its willingness to allow Vietnamese candidates to run in the election under his party, the Cambodian Peoples Party (CCP).

From the issues of the South China Sea to the Preah Vihear temple, countries involved have employed several tactics to overcome their weaknesses as well as to regain supposedly lost legitimacy as they are dealing with disputed territories and properties.

They have chosen to rely on mapping technology to reaffirm their ownership.

But they must have forgotten that mapping technology can be immensely arbitrary. In the past, territories were demarcated according to the limits of European powers.

At the present day, maps continue to serve as a manipulative object which inevitably provokes conflict and confrontation.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun


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