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Thailand and Cambodia spar over temple that lies on the border

Thailand closes its border, depriving Cambodian vendors of customers which has led to starvation, while gun fighting has occurred, and tension remains high

Bangkok

Preah Vihear, an Angkorean site which straddles the border between Thailand and Cambodia, has been virtually shut down for almost three months as the two countries bicker. The temple, whose Thai name is Khao Phra Viharn, lies just inside Cambodia. But its position on top of 1000-metre cliffs makes easy access possible only from Thailand. The fracas began in December. Thai authorities accused Cambodian souvenir hawkers, who inhabit shanties right on the border, of polluting Thai villages downstream. On 17 December, the Thais closed the border, depriving the vendors of customers. Cambodian officials such as provincial deputy governor Bun Sovann thundered that Thailand was plotting to subvert their sovereignty. Sensitivities are high because Thailand has never abandoned its claim to Preah Vihear, lost during international arbitration in 1962. On 21 January Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged gunfire at the site. Deprived of their meagre income, Cambodians in the souvenir village began starving. Faced with a public relations disaster, the Thai government changed its tune on closing the border; a Thai army officer stationed on the border claimed that Cambodia had “failed to cooperate with Thailand over robbery, smuggling and other problems”—a curious accusation, given that most cross-border crime is orchestrated by the Thai military, and that any such activity would surely not happen at Preah Vihear with such difficulties of access. Lost revenue is not currently a major concern; last year, ticket receipts came to $800, in contrast to the $7.2 million raked in by Seam Reap (Angkor). But with tourism Cambodia’s only growth industry, every little bit counts. On 7 February, the government broke ground on a dirt road which will lead directly to the site; it will later be sealed as far as the capital of Preah Vihear province, Theng Meanchey, a distance of 113km.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Thailand and Cambodia spar over temple'