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Plea for Indian Initiative to Resolve Thai-Cambodian Conflict over Preah Vihar

The temple of Preah Vihar, dedicated to Lord Siva, located in the Thai – Cambodia border, has once again got mired into bilateral dispute, unfortunately leading to armed skirmishes and even killing of innocent civilians. Bilateral talks between the two countries and even attempts made by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to broker peace have not succeeded.  Preah Vihar is one of the most glorious illustrations of India’s abiding cultural influences in Southeast Asia. What is more,   New Delhi has excellent equations with both Bangkok and Phnom Penh. It is high time that the Ministry of External Affairs should take initiative and get the area declared as a non-militarized zone.

In order to appreciate the complexities of the subject it is necessary to keep in mind the historical and cultural background of the temple. In addition the closer relationship which India today seeks with the Southeast Asian countries has to be fashioned on twin foundations – benign interaction of the past and mutuality of interests that exist at present.

Located to the South of China and east of India, the countries of Southeast Asia had been subjected to external cultural and political influences from very early times.  In fact, in its relations with Southeast Asia India has several plus points compared to China. India has left indelible imprint in political ideas, religion, language and art and architecture. The spread of Indian cultural influences and its absorption by Southeast Asian peoples constitutes a glorious chapter in Indian and Southeast Asian history alike. I cannot resist the temptation of quoting our former President Late R Venkataraman who visited Thailand few years ago. The Thai King gave a banquet in honour of Indian President and the occasion witnessed a splendid ballet performance by Thai artists, The theme of the ballet was based on Ramayana. In the course of the interval, the Thai king turned to Venkataraman and asked him, “Do you have Ramayana in your country”. To quote Venkataraman, “I wanted to respond that Ramayana has permeated all aspects of Indian life through the ages. My own name is not one Rama, but two Ramas, Ramaswamy Venkataraman and my wife’s name is Janaki. But I restrained myself because the Thais have made Ramayana as their own. What more recognition does India want?”. In this connection, it needs to be pointed out that the title of the Thai Kings is Rama and their earlier capital was Ayuthia.

Rabindranath Tagore, whose 150th birth anniversary we are celebrating this year, wrote a beautiful poem during his visit to Indonesia in 1927, which sums up the benign cultural interaction:

In a dim distant unrecorded age we had met, thou and I when my speech tangled in thine and my life in thy life   … From the heavens spoke to me two mighty  voices the one that sung of Rama’s glory of sorrow and the other Arjuna’s triumphant arm urging me to bear along with the waves this epic lines in the eastern islands; and the heart of my land murmured to me its hope that it might build its nest of love in a far away land of its dream.

From the early centuries of the Christian era, there were Indianised/Hinduised kingdoms in the region. Funan, Lankasuka, Sri Kshetra, Pagan, Khemer, Sri Vijaya, Sailendra, Majapahit are some of the important kingdoms which felt the Indian impact. The familiar Indo-Sanskritic vocabulary in Thai and Bahasa Indonesia; architectural monuments like Angkor, Pagan, Borobudur and Lara Djonggrang; literary masterpieces like Ramkien, Arjuna Vivaha and Bharata Yuddha; the Wajang Kulit (shadow play) based on Ramayana and Mahabharata themes; the living Indian traditions in the island of Bali – all these bear testimony to the courage and zeal of Indian princes, priests, poets, merchants and artisans and to the ingratiating and assimilable qualities of the Southeast Asian peoples. Norodom Sihanouk, the father of modern Cambodia, highlighted his country’s cultural indebtedness to India, while inaugurating the Jawaharlal Nehru Boulevard in Phnom Penh in May 1955. To quote Sihanouk:

When we refer to two thousand year old ties which united us with India, it is not all a hyperbole. In fact, it was about two thousand years ago that the first navigators, Indian merchants and Brahmins brought to our ancestors, their Gods, their techniques, their organizations. Briefly India was for us what Greece was to Latin Orient.

What is equally striking is the fact that the spread of Indian cultural influences was in sharp contrast to the manner in which Chinese influences spread. Northern part of Vietnam was an integral part of the Chinese Empire and sinicisation of Vietnam took place consequently. On the contrary, Indian influences spread to the region in a peaceful way. Except for the solitary incident of the Chola invasion of Southeast Asia in the 11th century, no other Indian ruler embarked on military expeditions.

Among one of the greatest of Indianised empires was the Khemer empire, based in the Ton Le Sap region of Cambodia, which gradually spread its influence to major parts of mainland Southeast Asia. They were the descendants of the wise Rishi Kambu and the celestial nymph Mera. They subscribed to the Devaraja cult and built monuments of exquisite beauty, both Hindu and Buddhist, like the Angkor Wat (dedicated to Vshnu) and Angkor Thom (dedicated to Buddha). In Angkor Wat there is the architectural reproduction of the Sagara Manthana (Churning of the Ocean) by both the Asuras and the Devas. The serpent Vasuki is the rope and Mount Meru is the churning stick. These monuments were the reproduction of the idea of Devaraja cult in architectural form, one way to immortalise themselves by projecting themselves as Gods.

The Khemer power began to decline in the 13th century. The Chams from the east and Thais from the west began to conquer territories and in 1431 Angkor itself was captured by the Thais. In fact, Thai and Vietnamese incursions continued and if the French had not intervened in the 19th century there would have been no Cambodia. This historical memory has given rise to the legacy, that the traditional enemies of Cambodia are Thailand and Vietnam.

It should also be pointed out that the early empires of Southeast Asia did not conform to the geographical boundaries of states that came into existence after the long spell of the colonial rule. The Khemer empire, at its zenith, not only comprised modern Cambodia, but also modern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. That is how Preah Vihar, which was located in Khemer heartland in the 11th to 13th centuries, came to be located in the Thai-Cambodia border.

The temple of Preah Vihar is composed of a series of sanctuaries linked by a system of pavements and stairways over 800 metre long axis. Its origins can be traced to the construction of a monastery which began in the 9th century and was completed in the 11th century. The temple stands on the promontory of the Dangrek range of mountains which constitutes the boundary between Thailand and Cambodia. After the Second World War, Thailand began to lay claims on the temple and precipitated a crisis by sending its troops. Cambodia sought legal remedies by approaching the International Court of Justice in 1959. The judgment was delivered in 1961 and by a majority, nine to three, the ICJ declared that the temple belonged to Cambodia and Thailand was instructed to provide passage to the temple through its territory. The Judgment did not completely solve the problem because the Thais were not reconciled to the judgment. Tensions occasionally flared up, armed clashes took place and diplomatic relations were snapped.

In July 2008 Preah Vihar was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a move that outraged Thai sentiments. In early 2010 number of incidents took place, when eleven people were killed in skirmishes and 50,000 living in the area were evacuated. The internal Thai divisions played a big role in precipitating the crisis, with hawks demanding the use of force to settle the dispute once and for all and the moderates advocating negotiations as the way out. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) got involved, but it was not able to provide a solution. The Indonesian observers were refused entry to the disputed site. Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia is also occasionally taking a strong stance with the hope of consolidating his power.

I believe that India should step into the scene and try to bring about reconciliation between the two countries by getting the whole place demilitarized. It may be recalled that India has the good will of both countries and Indian efforts to bring about peace will not be misconstrued as Indian interference. The students of modern Southeast Asian history recall that Sihanouk was toying with the idea of joining the US sponsored Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), but thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru’s diplomatic efforts, Sihanouk gave up the idea and chose to follow the path of non-alignment. It was part and parcel of India’ policy to make Indo-China an “area of peace” after the Geneva Settlements of 1954.

Similarly Thailand wants to promote friendly relations with India. I recall that few years ago, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao went to Thailand on a state visit. During that occasion he announced that the Government of India will not levy visa fees for those Thais who wanted to come to India as Buddhist pilgrims. That gesture touched the Thai hearts and they viewed India not only as a peace loving country, but the firth place of Lord Buddha. . The Ministry of External Affairs should take this suggestion seriously and play its diplomatic cards carefully, so that we further strengthen our benign interaction with the region.

Equally important, recent Indian visitors to Preah Vihar point out that though it has been declared a world heritage site by the UNESCO, the temple is in urgent need of renovation and repair. India has already played a commendable role in the restoration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The need of the hour is for Hindu religious organizations to step in and take up the task. It may be recalled that in Dhaka the Shaktipeetham in Dakshewari, located behind the campus of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, was restored thanks to the initiative taken by Hindu organizations both within and outside Bangladesh.  The temple in Dhaka is believed to be constructed in the place where the jewel from the crown of Dakshayani, the daughter of Daksha and consort of Siva, fell. The temple was damaged during the war in 1971 and in the communal riots during 1989-90. Now it has been restored to original glory. It may be recalled that His Holiness Jayendra Saraswathi, Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, visited the temple in June 2000. In honour of his visit the entrance to the temple has been named “Shankaracharya Gate”. Such an initiative is called for in the case of Preah Vihar also.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan Is Director and Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. His e mail

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