The History of Preah Vihear Temple: Conflict, Khmer Legacy, and Lasting Peace

In 2008, Southeast Asia was rocked by an armed conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, sparked by the ownership dispute over Preah Vihear Temple, a historical Khmer site located near the border of both countries. This conflict, claiming lives and involving the contestation of cultural heritage, garnered international attention. This article explores the roots of the conflict, the history of Preah Vihear Temple, and its legal journey until tensions eased in 2011.

The border skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia in 2008 resulted in casualties and heightened tensions in the region. The ownership dispute over Preah Vihear Temple, recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the same year, added complexity to the situation. According to UNESCO, the temple is an extraordinary Khmer masterpiece dedicated to Lord Shiva, showcasing remarkable artistry, detailed decorations, and a spectacular landscape connection.

Preah Vihear Temple is part of the larger Khmer heritage complex that includes Angkor Wat. Despite some of its structures being in ruins, the temple is still considered a sacred place and continues to be used for pilgrimages. The traces of the Khmer civilization, which once ruled parts of the Indochina Peninsula, can be traced back to the 9th century.

An inscription, the Sdok Kok Thom inscription, reveals the connection between Javanese and Khmer people in the 9th century. Jayawarman II, a key figure in the formation of the Khmer Kingdom, is believed to have lived in Java during the era of Medang, or Ancient Mataram. Although these relations existed, Javanese success in occupying Khmer at a certain point created inequality, culminating in Cambodia’s independence in 802 AD.

The dispute over Preah Vihear Temple began in the early 20th century, when Cambodia was still under French rule. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1904 and 1907 determined the border at the Dangrek Mountains, placing the temple initially within Siam’s territory. However, changes in the border resulted in Preah Vihear Temple becoming part of Cambodia’s territory in 1904.

In 1954, after the withdrawal of French forces and Cambodia’s independence, Thailand reoccupied Preah Vihear Temple. Cambodia brought the case to the International Court of Justice in 1959, and a hearing was held in 1962. Despite Thailand’s doubts about the validity of the Franco-Siamese Mixed Commission map, the International Court of Justice ruled that Preah Vihear Temple belonged to Cambodia.

Despite the International Court of Justice’s decision on the ownership of Preah Vihear Temple, tensions persisted regarding the surrounding areas. Peace was finally achieved in 2011 when both parties agreed to withdraw their troops from the disputed area, marking the end of a protracted conflict.

The history of Preah Vihear Temple reflects the complexity of border conflicts and the significance of cultural heritage. Despite enduring lengthy debates, peace was eventually found through diplomatic agreements. The temple not only bears witness to the journey of the Khmer Kingdom but also imparts the importance of dialogue and international cooperation in resolving conflicts.