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Letter from Cambodia

The Battle Over Preah Vihear

A territorial dispute involving a 1,100-year-old Khmer temple on the Thai-Cambodian border turns violent

March/April 2013



Archaeologist Pheng Sam Oeun was chatting with a park ranger at Preah Vihear when the artillery barrage started. It was 6:15 p.m. on February 4, 2011, and he had just finished his workday at the administrative center at the base of the mountain where the 1,100-year-old Khmer temple complex stands. In spite of the apparent danger, Pheng and the park ranger stood and watched the scene unfolding in the mountains above: flashes of light from the artillery fire accompanied by the crack of gun shots. “We would see the fire first, and then we heard the sounds,” says Pheng.


Preah Vihear sits just a few hundred feet inside Cambodia’s border with Thailand. Pheng is in charge of preserving the site’s architecture and has been conducting small-scale excavations there, but, predictably, his job is complicated by the conflict.


Half an hour after the fighting had begun, the shelling had grown so intense that Pheng and the park ranger made a run for their bunker, a section of concrete sewage pipe buried under an eight-foot mound of dirt. For three hours they hid there, slapping at malarial mosquitos and waiting for the skirmish to end. At one point, an 81 mm mortar round ricocheted off the stone threshold of an ornately decorated building, chipping it and killing the temple’s photographer. According to news reports, the attack wounded dozens of soldiers and civilians, and at least seven were killed. The incident touched off six months of intermittent fighting at the site.


Cambodia and Thailand have argued and fought over the ownership of Preah Vihear for more than 100 years. But the most recent cause of tension was that the temple complex was designated a United Nations Education Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in July 2008. Since then, the site has become the object of political posturing by Thai and Cambodian nationalists alike. At stake is the survival of a unique holy place that is important to the cultural heritage of both nations. Preah Vihear could also be an important source of tourist income for Cambodia’s struggling economy.



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