In tussle over Cambodian ‘Hindu’ temple, religion suffers

By Bronwyn Sloan, DPA,

Preah Vihear (Cambodia) : Sor Sarom, a resident of this small town on the Thai-Cambodian border, went to the pagoda on the first day of Buddhist Lent as she always does, and found herself being held at gunpoint by a man dressed in black.

Support TwoCircles

“It brought all my memories of the Khmer Rouge back. I was terrified. He just came out of the shadows inside the temple,” the 50-year-old said.

Slowly she realized the armed man pointing an assault rifle at her inside Wat Keo Setha Kiri Svarak pagoda, around 600 metres from the main Preah Vihear temple, was a Thai soldier.

Buddhist Lent, when monks sequester themselves for the monsoon season, is traditionally a period of meditation, teaching and introspection for monks on both sides of the border. This year Lent began Friday, but for three days Thai troops had already been camped in an area they say is a disputed no man’s land and Cambodia says is part of its own territory.

The temple built in 1037 by King Suriyavaraman of what is now known as Cambodia along Thai-Cambodian border is one of the most brilliant examples of Hindu architecture and precedes by 100 years another Hindu landmark structure, the Angkor Wat.

Since 2007, Cambodia has been trying to have the Preah Vihear temple, located on a mountain top on the Thai-Cambodian border, listed as a World Heritage Site.

Thailand and Cambodia have historically laid claim to the site, which sits on the Cambodian soil but can only be easily accessed from Thailand.

Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk took Thailand to the World Court in 1962 over the two countries’ claim to Preah Vihear. The court ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia.

The International Court ruled in 1962 that it was Cambodian.

Thailand had objected to the temple’s listing on the grounds that land surrounding the temple remains disputed.

Chief monk at Wat Keo Setha, Khan Yon, says the dispute and resulting military buildup has been emotionally wrenching on devout Buddhist citizens and soldiers on both sides.

“One Thai commander came to me and offered money to the pagoda to show his feelings,” Khan Yon said. “Thai Buddhists are like Cambodian Buddhists, but now Thai soldiers come here wearing all black like the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot.”

Some had even slung hammocks in the pagoda before they were ordered to pull back a few metres from the religious site after a visit by an international delegation, he said.

“Those people are not real Buddhists. Please take off your black caps and do not carry weapons inside. This is a place of prayer,” Khan Youn said.

Cambodians still remember when black-clad Khmer Rouge troops abolished religion and slaughtered monks in a disastrous 1975-79 reign, and although they know that is not the Thai soldiers’ intent, the sight of armed men in black at a pagoda is cruelly evocative.

“I feel very sad about weapons at a pagoda. I am a Buddhist, too,” Thai Colonel Chay An Huay Sooner said. “But I am a soldier, so I follow orders, although I don’t know who gave them.”

Although more than 1,000 troops from both sides are now dug in the disputed territory around a temple sacred to both sides, there are hopes that talks over the border in Thailand might be the beginnings of a solution and the focus can return to religion.

“Thai monks used to come here all the time, and we welcome them because we believe in the same things,” said Khan Yon.

“I hope that will happen again.”