Forgotten Conflicts: Cambodia and Thailand

October 28th, 2021

The border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand has now existed since the mid-19th century and has repeatedly led to territorial disputes with the occasional use of armed forces. The two main actors in this conflict, Cambodia and Thailand, are fighting over the national affiliation of the area around the Prasat Preah Vihear Temple, an abandoned Hindu Khmer temple dating back to the 10th to 12th century. Located on the northern border of Cambodia in the Dongrek Mountains 140 kilometers from Angkor Watt, this temple is one of the most impressive and important religious sites in this region.

Historical background

The first disputes about the affiliation of Prasat Preah Vihear can be traced back to the Siamese-Vietnamese War in 1833 - 1846[1]. Until then, the temple built by the Khmer belonged undisputedly to Siam, today's state of Thailand. Following the war, both parties signed a peace treaty in which Siam was forced, among other things, to cede sovereignty of the border region around the temple to Cambodia[2]. The national borders, however, remained unaffected by this and only suzerainty, i.e. a limited sovereign supremacy over an area, was granted to Cambodia. In map drawings of the region by a French military officer in 1907, the temple was in turn drawn on the Cambodian side of the border. This was not discovered by the Siamese government until the 1930s, however, which is why territorial disputes broke out again[3]. In the course of the 20th century, due to the Prasat Preah Vihear Temple, there were repeated minor border conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia, which ultimately led to the bloody conflicts between 2008 and 2011.

Current border disputes since 2008

Based on Cambodia's attempt to register the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Thai government countered that the temple was located on Thai territory and therefore Thailand would have to submit this application[4]. Due to political disputes, Cambodia initially closed its border to Thailand before Thai military forces reinforced their troops in the region. This was followed by bloody clashes in the region, which lasted until 2011 and claimed lives on both sides[5]. On April 28, 2011, Cambodia submitted a request for clarification of the border disputes to the International Court of Justice. In the report from 2013[6], the court stated that according to the generally applicable regulation between the two states, the Prasat Preah Vihear Temple had been part of Cambodian territory since 1962 and that Thailand should withdraw all troops from the area. Since this ruling, the territorial disputes between the two countries have calmed down.

If older rulings were no longer recognized in the future, however, these border disputes could regain relevance. The situation could then come to a head and escalate again, and the border between the two countries could be closed again. However, this is not foreseeable at the moment.

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About the author:
Brian Techert
CONIAS Risk Intelligence
Michael Bauer International GmbH

[1] Bangkok Post, A fine line, 22.08.2008
[2] Prasat Phra Viharn – Case study of political history – Nationalism, 27.08.2008
[3] Case Concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand), Merits, 03.06.2013
[4]  "Thailand, Cambodia and UNESCO meet over Preah Vihear". The Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog, 25.04.2008
[5] Thai–Cambodian conflict rooted in history in East Asia Forum, 27.01.2012