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Saturday August 9, 2008

Peace vigil, black magic and sabre-rattling over a temple

No matter how good one’s intentions, there will always be others who feel bad vibes from the same action. It’s not surprising then to see the kind of responses and reactions so far in the Thai-Cambodian border dispute.

EIGHT days ago, Bun Rany, the wife of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, and about 1,000 compatriots – who included Buddhist monks and government officials – held a peace vigil at the Preah Vihear temple, which is at the heart of a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

With mists swirling around the mountaintop 900-year-old temple, Cambodians prayed for an end to the military standoff between the two countries that started on July 15.

“We are gathering here to pray to the souls of our ancestors, asking for peace,” said Cambodia’s tourism minister Thong Khon, referring to Khmer kings who built the temple between the ninth and 11th centuries.

“We also pray for success in our defence of our territory.”

That was how the Associated Press, an American news agency, reported the ceremony at the temple, which Unesco recently designated as a World Heritage Site.

How did the Thai newspapers view the Cambodian ritual?

According to The Nation, an English-language newspaper, many Thais living in provinces close to the disputed temple wore yellow to shield Thailand from black magic spells cast by Khmer “wizards” at the ceremony chosen to coincide with a solar eclipse.

“Thai media reports said the mysterious black magic spells cast by Khmer wizards would not only protect the temple but also weaken Thailand. Some astrologers urged locals to wear yellow yesterday to deflect the spells,” The Nation reported on Aug 2.

A news story in The Bangkok Post said the ritual heightened fears among many Thais who thought that it would bring bad luck to their country.

“The anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) leaders last night led thousands of their supporters in a rival ritual to protect the country and block any ill-effects from the Cambodian one. Many Thais believe some Cambodians have expertise in black magic,” The Bangkok Post said in its report last Saturday.

The Deutsche Presse-Agentur German wire service reporting from Phnom Penh said claims published in the Thai media accusing Bun Rany of leading a black magic ritual would not help to diffuse anti-Thai sentiment in Cambodia.

“To be accused of sorcery is regarded as a terrible insult by Cambodians, who regularly kill those accused of it,” the news agency commented in an Aug 3 filing.

If the Thai newspaper reports had insulted Cambodians, wait till they hear Sondhi Limthongkul’s solution to the Preah Vihear dispute.

Sondhi is a core leader of PAD, which is using the Preah Vihear dispute, among other issues, to incite Thais to overthrow the Samak Sundaravej government.        

The International Court of Justice awarded the Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia in 1962, and the ruling still rankles among Thais.

Prachatai (www.prachatai.com), a bilingual Thai news portal, reported that on July 28 Sondhi told anti-government street protestors camped near Bangkok’s Government House, the seat of the Thai government, how he would solve the dispute.

“The only way is to oust (the Samak) government and form a new government through ‘whatever means’, or else the dispute over the Preah Vihear temple and Thai-Cambodian border will never be solved,” Prachatai quoted Sondhi as saying.

Among other provocative statements he made then:

> Push Cambodians back from Thai territory if the dispute cannot be settled through bilateral negotiations; and

> Close all 40 Thai-Cambodian border checkpoints and ban all flights to Phnom Penh and Siam Reap from Bangkok (70% of flights to the two destinations originate from Bangkok).

Sondhi also told the crowd: “Remember my words. Thai foreign minister Tej Bunnag will never be able to solve the dispute, because the policy of this government is to betray the country.”

And as if allegations of Khmer black magic and the provocative statements were not enough to intensify Thai-Cambodian tension, another temple about 130km west of Preah Vihear has emerged as a second border flashpoint.

It started when Cambodia complained that some 70 Thai troops had occupied the 13th-century Ta Muen Thom temple and had barred Cambodian soldiers from entering it.

Those who engage in dangerous talk on Preah Vihear should pay heed to Hun Sen, who said on Wednesday: “We cannot just carve out Thailand to put in the sky or move our land away. We will coexist for tens of thousands of years to come.”

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