Week 581 – 2008-10-13: Peace or War? Peace!

Posted on 14 October 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 581 |

For almost a generation, most Cambodians had such bitter memories of the Khmer Rouge period that they resisted anything that might remind or reawaken the conflicts of that period. Now, although the process is slow, the country is working toward justice through the Khmer Rouge trial and, in the process, striving to look at the hard lessons of that period and to strengthen the rule of law.

Unfortunately, there is apparently no similarly productive and thoughtful process to deal with and learn from the experience of the war during that same period. The memories, of how bitter, destructive, and useless armed conflict is, seem to have been forgotten. In particular, during recent months, there have been more and more calls for violent solutions to a dispute over land along the border with Thailand.

These calls are apparently in ignorance of the fact that on 18 June 2008, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister in Charge of the Office of the Council of Ministers So An had signed, for the Royal Government of Cambodia, that “the Kingdom of Cambodia accepts that the Temple of Preah Vihear be nominated for inscription on the World Heritage List without at this stage a buffer zone on the northern and western areas of the Temple,” and that the map appended “supersedes the maps… as well as all the graphic references… of the Temple of Preah Vihear site in Cambodia’s nomination file” previously presented to UNESCO with maps dating back to 1962 and 1907.

This 18 June 2008 Joint Communique [ file size of the text and the map 1.3 MB PDF], signed for the Royal Government of Cambodia – together with a representative of the Kingdom of Thailand and the Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO – to leave the question of ownership of the areas to the north and west of the temples undefined until further negotiations, is rarely if ever reported in the press in Cambodia. However, it is well known in Thailand.

Over a week ago, there was a brief exchange of fire between Cambodian and Thai soldiers. It resulted in bloodshed. Fortunately, there were not many soldiers from either side involved. If a similar incident had happened at the time when about two thousand soldiers were facing each other close to the Preah Vihear Temple, even an unintentional gunshot might have escalated into a big bloodbath.

The Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Thailand of starting the shooting, and Thailand in turn accused Cambodia of starting it. Thus, there is claim against claim in this incident. As every good court trial shows, the right way to handle this is calmly, with collection and consideration of facts. That can provide a basis for discussion, a genuine effort to understand the other person’s point of view, and finding ways to reduce the tension.

Reports about the meeting this week between high representatives of the Cambodian government with the visiting Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs are conflicting and frightening: on the one hand a timetable for the next round of formal negotiations was announced – yet on the other hand the Cambodian side immediately afterward issued an ultimatum that there would be armed conflict if Thai troops were not withdrawn swiftly from a disputed piece of land – some areas that have been claimed since a long time by both countries, and which both governments have to mutually agree upon as a topic in future negotiations. It is surprising that the Cambodian side is now reacting so strongly in relation to the “buffer zones on the northern and western areas of the temple,” set aside “at this stage,” in the June Joint Communique.

Cambodia has worked very hard to become a member of ASEAN and has played an important role in many aspects of ASEAN’s work. On Thursday, we mirrored a report that the Prime Minister had agreed to chair an Asian program “Bridges – Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace,” which brings together persons who have been honored for their contribution to peace in the world. Such personalities will visit different countries in Asia and, through a series of meetings at universities, share their dedication to developing a culture of peace.

It was reported that the Prime Minister “welcomed and absolutely supported the program organized by the International Peace Foundation, and accepted the request for him to chair the program in Cambodia, ‘to connect with persons in the ASEAN countries with persons who are recipients of World Peace Medals.”

We all know the tremendous sufferings and loss of life which result from using the shortcut of force, instead of working through dialogue and acting in the spirit of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to which ASEAN member countries agreed. To use force instead of negotiations on the current issue of disputed land – negotiations which have already been scheduled through mutual agreement – would also contradict international norms of settling bilateral issues through peaceful means, as the member countries of the United Nations have committed themselves. And to use force when negotiation is still possible ignores the bitter lessons of the many years of war in Cambodia’s history.

If the choice is war or peace, the choice can only be peace.

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