Thailand’s border with Cambodia has long been contentious, especially the area near Preah Vihear, an ornate 11th-century Khmer temple built to honor the Hindu god Shiva. For decades, the ancient site and a nearby stretch of territory have been the locus of a power struggle between the two nations, and tensions have flared anew in a dustup that left at least eight people dead and the temple reportedly scarred by artillery fire (the full extent of the damage remains unclear).
Legally, the International Court of Justice settled the dispute in 1962 in favor of Cambodia. Thailand never dropped its claim, and the court never ruled on parts of the land surrounding the temple. But for years, neither country seemed to care about the land’s upkeep; war between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge made the land uninhabitable, and to this day it remains sparsely populated. “It’s full of land mines,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “No one paid any attention to this border.”
So why the violence? The answer lies in domestic politics. Analysts say the temple reemerged as a flash point in 2008, after UNESCO accepted a Cambodian proposal to make it a World Heritage site. The yellow shirts, a Thai opposition group, seized on the issue to stoke fears of national decline and weaken the government in Bangkok, then controlled by supporters of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Meanwhile, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s longtime leader, used the tension to shore up election-year support. The result: spasms of violence, which have periodically flared ever since. The latest volleys have been the most serious yet. And though it’s not clear who fired first, analysts say the yellow shirts have been aggressively using the temple issue for months to weaken an anti-Thaksin government, which consists of their former allies.
By press time, a tacit ceasefire had been implemented along the border, and on Monday both sides planned to make their case to the U.N. Security Council. Still, troops were armed to the teeth, and Shiva’s temple remained in the crosshairs of a petty and unnecessary war.