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Freitag, 22. April 2011

Part 6 - Preah Vihear No Man's Land

What’s the Problem?

It’s human ignorance, of course. Until the 20th century South-East Asia barely knew borders in the western sense, not to mention imaginary lines on a piece of paper called map, before the colonial powers discovered their interest in this geography. All what counted was the influential power over people sparsely spread along the rivers and sea coasts and more rarely over almost inaccessible territories in the jungles, hills and mountains. Whoever paid tribute to the occasional “tax collector” was considered to be part of the subject community of a distant king who provided protection against roaming thiefs if his mind found it worthwhile.
Unthinkable, even ridiculous, the imagination that a person can stand with one leg in a foreign country and with the other on his home soil. This all changed when the British and the French arrived in the area. While the British established themselves in China, controlled the sea routes to this golden egg with their fleet, the French tried to sneak into China via country way and rivers, especially along the Mekhong. They have been the first westerns to explore this river upstream. The French failed but the name “Indochina” remains in the history books as an expression of their wishful thinking. So they got tough on their occupied territories  south of China and sucked the most out of it as they could do.
Siam, at that time, seemed to be under British influence from their point of view but it didn’t stop the French nibbling on Siamese influential areas. The French encashed South Vietnam and the coastal areas of Cambodia, then the whole of Laos and North-Cambodia, by then occupied by Siam. They broke several agreements with Siam and continued to extend their “Indochina” territory to the expense of Siam. In 1907 a final agreement with Siam was signed which satisfied the British interests. Siam had no choice other than to follow suit. The borders defined by then are the borders of Thailand today.
The Paknam incident of 1893 was too fresh in the Siamese minds. At that time French gunboats forced their way up the Chao Phraya river to the vicinity of the Royal Palace. King Rama V is quoted: ”I felt like a frog in a coconut shell”.
However, the 1907 agreement had no hidden agenda or contained a threat of force by the French, if Siam wouldn’t sign. It was proceeded by the establishment of a joint border commission. The French brought in the skills for land surveys and the necessary technical instruments and the Siamese provided administrative and logistical support. To cut the long story short, the French did all the works in the almost impenetrable outback’s, produced finally all the maps and attached them to the to be signed agreement.
Siam signed trustfully, hoping that the conflict with this colonial power was solved once and for all. It was, at last from the French point of view. The French hunger for territory in this part of the world was nursed and no further demands occurred from their side.

So, what’s the problem?

The answer is, the Siamese couldn’t read maps. They fully relied on the written commitment of the joined border commission that the border between Siam and Indochina is supposed to follow natural geographic conditions as there are escarpments, often called watersheds, or large rivers as is the case to the better part between Laos and Thailand. King Rama V saw the point as one in the western world highly educated person and called specialists from Britain and Germany into the country to teach his administration in map reading and interpretation. All these consultants left after a while frustrated about the inability of the Siamese to comprehend the meaning of a map. So it came, despite all of this, that the royal house of Siam distributed the maps all over the Kingdom to the province and state officials and considered them as documentaries of the fixed Thai border lines. New editions were ordered from the French government frequently when need arose.

It took the Thai government more than 40 years to recognize their mistake. The maps showed a sneaky little deviation from the natural border lines. Instead of marking the Dangrek escarpment as a national border all the way, they showed an exceptional aberration at Preah Vihear. Thailand went to war against Cambodia in the early fifties of the previous century and occupied the temple grounds of Preah Vihear…   

Cautionary Remark: Whoever intends to visit Preah Vihear / Khao Pra Wihan should ask for advice beforehand. As of now, April 2011, the place is closed for visitors. Thai and Cambodian troops face each other in close proximity. Renewed battles could emerge at any time.   

stay tuned... 

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