62 virgins to the rescue?

In this final post in the context of Peace Week 2010 and the International Day of Peace, Gea Wijers shows how Cambodia mobilizes a curious ‘invented tradition’ in a long-running conflict with Thailand around an ancient temple.

Cambodia must be the only country on this planet to proudly portray a ruin on its national flag. The stylized image of mythical Angkor Watt  (a Cambodian temple complex) in its hay-day says all that needs to be said about the Cambodian government. Its tendency to opportunistically cling on to a romantic national past that may never have existed. Its tendency to defend this past, despite its invention by colonial foreigners and against claims by neighbouring states. And, last but not least, its tendency to legitimize the resulting defensive policies by simply inventing more traditions. The case of Preah Vihear may serve as an illustrative example.

Under close scrutiny the question of “Preah Vihear” actually consists of two issues. First, there’s a row about the ownership and maintenance of an ancient temple ruin that is listed as an UNESCO monument. Second, there’s the issue of the exact location of this temple in relation to the Thai-Cambodian borders in the same area. Is the temple situated in Thai or Cambodian territory? These two issues don’t necessarily overlap. However, for political convenience they merged into one great big row. While there is something to be said for both Thai and Cambodian claims, the Cambodian government is making sure that this row keeps on getting completely out of hand.

The semi-democratic Cambodian government under Hun Sen has taken full advantage of the “crisis” by reinforcing nationalistic sentiments. Soon after Thai claims as to ‘ownership’ of the Preah Vihear temple were voiced, war rhetoric could be heard and the military was mobilized. Even months later, it’s still as if a Thai invasion may take place any minute. Drastic measures are taken as budgets dedicated to developmental projects are being redirected towards military efforts. Even the national broadcasting company CTN is organizing a fundraising event to pay for bunkers being built along the Thai-Cambodian border, considering that the government apparently can’t afford to.

You would think that there’s no other way to resolve this issue between two civilized nations. Yet, under international pressure, the International Court of Justice in The Hague has also been alerted and asked to mediate. The possible contents and consequences of their verdict, however, do not get mentioned much in the national press. Even now, the slightest Thai reference to the events leads to enraged Cambodian reactions.  In the national press and on national television the well-known historian Ros Chantrabot  explains “the truth” to the Cambodian, people.  That is, how Preah Vihear is truly and fully theirs and originally belongs to the territory of the temple complex Angkor Watt. You remember that one don’t you? The ruin on the national flag?

Building on this sense of romantic nationalism, on august 17, sixty-two Khmer virgins dressed in white performed a traditional peace-ceremony, the ‘Buong Suong’ on the Preah Vihear ruin. It’s only been about 200 years since this was last performed, and nobody knows exactly what it’s supposed to look like. In this case it’s meant to “fortify the soul of the temple”, says the father of one of the girls, “so the sacred places will receive the respect they deserve”.  Next to the temple’s soul, many young soldiers’ souls are also fortified as they watch the procession of young ladies pass by. Well intended as this effort for peace making may be, these soldiers stationed near the temple will need all the  support they can get. Since, with the distinct support of government propaganda, this conflict is long from over. No matter what the Courts in The Hague will decide.

Gea Wijers is a PhD candidate at the Center for Comparative Social Studies (CCSS) and the Cambodia Research Group at the VU. She is now carrying out fieldwork in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On this weblog, she earlier wrote about the Khmer tribunal.  See also the other posts published during Peaceweek 2010.

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