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Khao Phra Viharn : by Michael Wright
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  1. #1
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    Feb 2006
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    Khao Phra Viharn : by Michael Wright

    'Khao Phra Viharn : Some Historical Background' By....... Michael Wright


    Khao Phra viharn was probably already a sacred place in prehistoric times, one of those awe-inspiring sites that early man identified as the abode of a powerful spirit. By the 10th. century Brahmins had identified the spirit as Shiva under the title Shri Shikhareshvara (Lord of the Peak), perhaps the origin of the name of Srisaket Province today.

    A magnificent temple was built on the summit, with a grand processional way leading up to it, a sacred path from the human world to the divine. The stairs begin at the foot of the hill (now in Thailand) and culminate at the peak (now in Cambodia).

    With the total collapse of Angkor in 1431 Khao Phra Viharn soon fell into ruin and disappeared from history. It was situated in a remote area to which no major city state could lay effective claim.

    A strategic map of the area, drawn up by a Siamese cartographer in the early 19th. century, gives details along the Dong Rak range from Khorat to Champasak but it marks no border and makes no mention of Khao Phra Viharn. (See Royal Siamese Maps, River Books, 2004). Khao Phra Viharn was of no importance and had disappeared from the realm of useful knowledge.

    To the outsider, therefore, the present furore over Khao Phra Viharn may seem inexplicable in its complexity. What is all the fuss about ? Our perplexity is worsened by the fact that no agency, governmental, international or private, has published a map indicating the exact location of the official border line which might have helped us to understand what the furore is about.

    However this may be, the outsider may gain an insight into the controversy it he considers the story of the definition of Thailand’s modern borders historically, in three easy stages as follows:-

    Step 1 In 1907 Siam signed a treaty ceding the northern and western provinces of Cambodia to the French protectorate that had been established over the eastern and southern provinces 50 years earlier. The Siamese/Cambodian border was based on the watershed as indicated in a map drawn up in 1904. Though the map is ascribed to the work of ‘ a joint committee’ , it is probable that the survey work was conducted unilaterally by the French who were unlikely to invite the participation of the Royal Siamese Survey Department, then still under the supervision of British advisors.

    We do not know how the French surveyor worked, but he seems to have traveled along the plain to the north of the Dong Rak Range where there were scattered villages joined by cart-track. To the south of the Range travel would have been much more difficult if not impossible.

    He would have taken theodolite readings from peak to peak, triangulating to establish an average watershed, more useful as a border in rough terrain than the real watershed that may twist and turn violently over a short distance.

    The French surveyor seems to have done an excellent job, and most of his border remains unquestioned. But his work falters when he comes to Khao Phra Viharn. There he ignores the watershed and his border line runs along the cart-track to the north of the hill on the Siamese side of watershed.

    How can we explain this able serveyor’s lapse? It is unlikely that he was deliberately dishonest as, at that time, Khao Phra Viharn was just another ruin in the jungle in which the French can have had little or no interest. There are a number of possibilities:-

    - He may have suffered a bout of malaria and lacked the strength to
    carry out his survey tasks.

    - He may have become lazy and chose to ignore this feature, then
    under tall forest and nearly invisible from the north.

    - I suspect that he may have found himself running over schedule and
    still had a long way to go. He therefore made up time by driving his
    team round the foot of the hill without taking note of the watershed.
    He probably hoped that no one (in his working lifetime) would
    come along and detect his error.

    However that may be, the result is that Khao Phra Viharn is a geographical and legal anomaly:- it is physically in Thailand and legally in Cambodia.

    There is no doubt about this. Last time I visited Khao Phra Viharn it was in the rainy season and there had been a heavy shower . Having crossed the border into Cambodian territory we climbed the magnificent processional way leading to the summit. Water was cascading down the slope, indicating that we were still on the Thai side of the watershed.

    The French surveyor of 1940 is now long dead and buried, and (as he hoped) nobody noticed his lapse for many years. More recently, however, Khao Phra Viharn has become a bone of contention and his lapse presents a dilemma that perhaps only Solomon could solve.

    Step 2 In 1962 (after ignoring Khao Phra Viharn for about 50 years) Thailand and Cambodia were enjoying a fit of rabid nationalism. Each insisted that they owned Khao Phra Viharn, and the dispute was submitted to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

    The court refused to take geography into account but based its judgment on the treaty that Siam had signed with the French in 1907 and had never questioned or repudiated.

    Thus Khao Phra Viharn remained physically in Thailand but legally in Cambodia as before.

    Step 3 In 2007 Cambodia proposed to UNESCO that Khao Phra Viharn be included in its list of World Heritage Sites. There was nothing wrong with that; the Cambodians had a perfect right to submit this admirable proposal.

    Then in May 2008 Thailand’s Foreign Minister cosigned a joint communiqué with his Cambodian counterpart. The communiqué was addressed to the World Heritage Committee expressing Thailand’s full support for Cambodia’s unilateral application. There should have been nothing wrong with that, except that it had been done without public participation and without the matter being submitted to Parliament, though it involved delicate border issues and might be to Thailand’s detriment in future disputes.

    The heart of the problem, however, lies not in Khao Phra Viharn itself but in the identity of Thailand’s Foreign Minister at the time. Before he was appointed foreign Minister, Noppadon Pattama had been spokesman and chief legal advisor to ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who is alleged to have major investment interests in Cambodia.

    Khun Noppadon’s motives in supporting Cambodia’s application may in fact have been as pure as a virgin’s blush, but not many people are inclined to believer that. Indeed rumour has it that Thailand’s interest in Khao Phra Viharn (marginal though it may be in legal terms) was sacrificed in exchange for commercial concessions that the Cambodian government might grant to a certain private investor. This allegation may not in fact be true, but it is widely believed, and that is what counts.

    Ganymede, my oracular cat, has just slipped me an aide-memoire pointing out as follows:-

    “ a farmer does not appoint a fox to guard the interests of his chicken run. Similarly a properly constituted democratic government does not appoint the attorney of a fox to oversee the foreign interests of the state.”


    Since 1907 the status of Khao Phra Viharn and its environs had been a geographical and legal anomaly (physically in Thailand, legally in Cambodia), but one that both countries could live with. However, since the World Heritage Committee accepted Cambodia’s unilateral application, with the inappropriate and inexplicable support of the Thai government, Khao Phra Viharn has again become a burning issue, and the two governments stand eyeball to eyeball over the careless error made by a surveyor in 1904.

    Most regrettable is the fact that the conflict has been externalized, making it difficult for Thais to recognize and confront the enemy within.

  2. #2
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    May 2007
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    Re: Khao Phra Viharn : by Michael Wright

    My country, Malaysia, was also involved in a territorial dispute with Singapore. Perhaps we can get some insight of how international laws work from this case.

    The subject of dispute was an island (or rock). It was geographically closer to Malaysia, but International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded it to Singapore. The reason: Malaysia had failed to exercise sovereignty over the island. An old map published by Malaysia prior to the dispute even showed the island as part of Singapore.

    In Michael Wright's article, we are told that "Khao Phra Viharn was of no importance and had disappeared from the realm of useful knowledge". In essence, Thailand made the same mistake as Malaysia did. Maybe this is why ICJ awarded the temple to Cambodia.

    Given that access to the temple is on the Thai side, by right Thailand can reap economic benefits from it. Unfortunately, nationalism is running high in both Thailand and Cambodia. Tourists and devotees alike are staying away. This is a lose-lose situation.

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