The loud voices shouted ‘Cheyo Prasath Preah Vihear Khmer’ meaning ‘Bravo Preah Vihear, Khmer temple,’ and some Khmer National songs were proudly sung by the local youths, children and adults. All of these voices came from the heart of the 14 million Cambodians of the nation when they found out that the ‘Preah Vihear Temple’ had been successfully registered in the World Heritage List on 7 July 2008. From the capital city of Phnom Penh, to provincial towns and to all the small villages and pagodas, there was celebrating and a victory party throughout the Kingdom of Cambodia.
This victory for Preah Vihear Temple is breaking news and disconnected from the party politics of the national election 2008.
Over the weeks, all the talk was about the Preah Vihear registration news. Also, the media were all busy sending each other messages of congratulations for the listing of the Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site.
But on the other side of the border, a group of Thais who were unaware of the history and pronouncements of international law came over to the gate of Preah Vihear temple to complain, to make noise and to ignore all the facts, reality and even international law. The most obstreperous, pro-Thai protestors were shouting in Thai to the effect that ‘Preah Vihear temple belongs to Thailand. Why did UNESCO give it away to Cambodia?’
This group of Thailand boosters seemed to have just awaked from a nightmare after over 50 years of dreaming when the Siam army occupied Preah Vihear temple in the late 1950s. Even the International Court of Justice ruled that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia but the Thai boosters seemed to be blissfully unaware of this reality.
After the French colonialists gave full independence to Cambodia in 1954, the Thai army invaded and for several years occupied Preah Vihear temple. Then the Royal Government of Sangkum Reastr Nyum, led by King Norodom Sihanouk, brought this case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague in the Netherlands. After few years and an investigation, on 15 June 1962, the International Court of Justice decided that the Preah Vihear Temple belonged to Cambodia.
Many Thai people are still upset at this loss in the International Court. The Thais even tried to impede the Royal Government of Cambodia in preparing the documents to bring the Preah Vihear temple into the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. But unluckily for the Thais, the 37th meeting of UNESCO’s committee in Quebec, Canada, decided to register the Preah Vihear Temple in the World Heritage List.
This caused the Thais almost uncontrollable anger.
At 15 July 2008, three Thais stepped over the border at midnight and were caught by the Cambodian authorities. This was reported to the Thai government. Then some Thai military men stepped onto Cambodia territory and one was injured by a land mine. This sudden loss of face was too much for their army commanders and this changed everything. They decided to occupy the Sekha Kriri Svara pagoda near the Preah Vihear temple and claim the land as Thai.
Since then, the Thai military have been increasing their troops to thousands of soldiers fully equipped and with modern weapons. For all practical purposes, this is an invasion. We must now ask why the Thais created this scene?
Why did the Thai military come to take Cambodia land? What is the reason? Why don’t they just take their own land?
At 6:03 pm, 17 July 2007: In the pagoda, all seemed normal. A group of monks were finishing up chanting the dharma in the main building and some them went to bed. In the Preah Vihara building, a small group of monks with a few old people starting more dharma chanting. A Khmer photojournalist was taking photographs with the monks and went out of the pagoda and put on his shoes.
Suddenly there were a few loud commands in the Thai language from the army leader. Some of the troops ran up to him and he shouted another order. The soldiers ran back to their original places and grabbed their weapons and ran for local cover in the pagoda area. The Thai soldiers who had been eating, threw away their plates, grabbed their weapons and ran for cover among the big stones of the temple. They took their weapons from ‘safe’ to ‘fire’ and pointed them to the other side of the road where a photojournalist was walking and carrying few cameras.
"Please, do not shoot because the monks are chanting the Buddha dharma in the Vihara. Today is the Buddhist day; we are all brothers in Buddhism. Please keep the peace!" said the photojournalist and walked out in front of the soldiers guns.
Inside the pagoda, few Thai soldiers even interrogated the lady who cooks for the monks, their guns pointed at her.
Then the two armies pointed their guns at each other and the Khmer elderly ran out of the pagoda to tell the people outside. The Thai army was surrounded and pointing their guns at the Khmer.
At about 7:30 pm there was trouble again. Both the Thai and Khmer soldiers were coming out from around the pagoda and keying their weapons from ‘safe’ to ‘fire’. The leaders of both sides were hard talking to each other in order to find a peaceful solution. This included phone communication between the commanders on each side. A solution was found when the Khmer side agreed to move the army away from inside the pagoda.
On 18 July, H.E. Phay Siphan, spokesman of Council Ministers House of the Royal Government of Cambodia brought a group of Cambodian national journalists and international media persons to the Preah Vihear temple. The press conference took place in front of the Sekha Kiri Svara pagoda on the edge of the battlefield. "I came here to bring my Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen’s message to every one here, to keep peace."
During this, Khann Yon, 40, head monk of Skha Kiri Svara pagoda came to the conference and suggested to the Thai army leader, "I would like you take all your troops outside our pagoda. We need the pagoda to pray for Buddha’s dharma and for our people to perform their Buddhism ceremonies."
Lt. Chhayan Sun Naneon, who was the Thai army leader there, said, "Yes, we agree with you. After this conference we are prepared to move." Everybody was happy and gave him a big hand.
But about two hours later, about 60 new soldiers were added for a total of over 500 troops in the Skha Kiri Svara pagoda. Then the Thai commander said that they would not leave the pagoda, "We will wait for our top commander to find a solution for us," he said. "And never mind about this agreement 2 hours ago!"
The situation went from bad to worse. Both sides started to take up positions and wait!
On 21 July, a meeting between Cambodians and Thais was set up in Srah Keo province of Thailand near the border of Banteay Mean Chey province. A day long meeting seemed unnecessary but they agreed no fighting. Instead of this, Thai troops massed by the thousands near the Preah Vihear temple and the Thai army was in a fighting mood while the Cambodias were preparing to resist. But the Cambodian side constantly tried to be peaceful accordingly to their leader’s orders.
Ever since the Cambodian Military sent troops to protect the Preah Vihear temple area, CTN television, and other television stations, including several radio stations broadcasted requests for donated aid and gifts to be distributed to the Cambodian military opposing the Thais. Many charities funded and collected large amounts of gifts, food, medicine and other necessities. All this demonstrates that Cambodians love their Preah Vihear temple and they honestly share their hearts with the Khmer military for protecting the temple and homeland from foreign incursion.
Instead of sending gifts to the collectors, more and more Khmer people went to the temple area to donate their gifts directly and to daily visit the Khmer soldiers at the Preah Vihear temple.
The inscriptions recorded in the Preah Vihear temple went deep into Khmer dynasty history and culture back to ancient times. This temple construction began in the 9th century by King Yasovaraman I, then continued by King King Suryavarman I, King Udayadityavarman II, King Jayavarman VI, and was finished by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. In the year of 1016 King Suryavaraman I, celebrating his official royal ceremony for Preah Vihear Temple, which was originally named ‘Sri Sekharisvara’ according to the main Siva God name.
With these inscriptions together with the Khmer history books written by Khmer scholars as well as some books by European scholars, it can be clearly understood that the Preah Vihear temple was build by ethnic Khmers and that this temple was finished about 200 years before the new migrant ethic group called the ‘Siamese’ race established themselves in our nation after they robbed power from the local Khmer Governor in the Sukhothai area, all in the 13th century.
"Normally, all of the inscriptions in every Khmer temple ended by our ancestors stating at the end of each script ‘we announce to all people who are builders and protectors to take care of these temples and be reborn in paradise. But for destroyers or even those who think bad thoughts, their family relationships will get bad luck and they will be stuck in hell for ever’," professor Sotheara said. •
PREAH VIHEAR, Mountain of the Gods
Preah Vihear, one the most remarkable achievements of the ancient Khmers, still sees few visitors. Hopefully the floodgates are about to open as the site was registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List this year, 2008.
Preah Vihear is a triumph of art and architecture, a cultural jewel with a history spanning millennia. Countless pilgrims and monarchs have made the long journey to pray there, though camera toting tourists have replaced the ragged mendicants of the past.
H.E. Chhuch Phoeun, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said he thought Preah Vihear was added onto UNESCO’s list because it meets all criteria of integrity, outstanding universal value, and protection and management. "Now that our temple is listed, we will benefit greatly especially in the tourism sector," he said.
H.E. Hang Soth, Deputy Director of the Preah Vihear Authority, he said that "I agreed with H.E Phoeun. Preah Vihear temple is qualified to be on the world heritage list because it is wonderful and should be compared to a priceless diamond,"
"Moreover, since Preah Vihear was included on the world heritage list this year (2008), it will be the second destination for tourists after Angkor Wat and living conditions for people in the Preah Vihear area will be much improved," H.E. Soth said.
He explained that a site could be included on the world heritage list only if it is a masterpiece of human creative genius, a unique testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization, an outstanding architectural or technological ensemble, or a landscape illustrating a significant stage in human history. "Protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are also important considerations," H.E. Soth added.
H.E. Pich Keo, former professor of the Royal University of Fine Arts, said that for almost 1200 years, Preah Vihear has dominated the surrounding plateaus. The arduous struggle of construction was a major feat of engineering. "Ten ancient Kings were involved in the construction but most work was done by only six of them," he said.
The temple was begun by King Yasovarman I (889-910 AD). He built the foundations and the eastern stairs which rise nearly a kilometer from the forested plains. King Suryavarman I, (1002-1050) and his son King Udayadityavarman II (1050-1068) carried on, laying out most of the monolithic features present today. King Jayavarman VI (1080-1107), King Dharanindravarman I (1107-1112), and King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) added the finishing touches.
"Two kings spent much more time building than the rest," said Pich. "The father and son kings, that is King Suryavaraman I and his son King Udayadityavarman II, were great architects. They put in the walkways, the stairs, the walls – all these structures were carved out of mountain stone to be part of the temple."
"It is easy to see which parts were installed by Suryavaraman and Udayadityavarman as their artistic style is very distinctive," Pich explained.
"The parts of the temple built by these kings are mostly the same," he said. "On the Pder [gate lintels] of the temple they use the Kleang temple style, an interesting art style including lion heads in the center. The father [King Suryavaraman I] depicts lion tongues as leaves, but for the son [King Udayadityavarman II’s], lions have no tongues."
Some information about the pair was gleaned from temple inscriptions although detective work was required. "Even temple inscriptions didn’t tell us that the two kings were related," said Pich. "My experience tells me that the smooth continuation of art characteristics means it’s sure that these kings were both from the same blood, or we can say ‘father and son kings’."
Former Deputy Director of National Committee for UNESCO, Dr. Micheal Tranet said the temple’s orientation is a clue to its function. "Preah Vihear faces north across the ex-Khmer provinces now in north-east and central Thailand," Tranet explained. "They selected this mountain to construct the temple as being the center of the ancient Khmer Kingdom. It signifies the central power of the king."
As well as status symbol and central marker, the temple is also a monument to religious tolerance. "The Preah Vihear temple was dedicated to Shiva, a god of the Brahman religion, but it was not cut off from Buddhism because most of the kings who helped to build this temple understood Buddhism," Tranet said.
Ros Samphal, Director of the Department of Culture and Fine Arts of Preah Vihear province, said the temple’s layout is complex. It has four levels from the top, with four courtyards, each containing five Gopuras (entrance pavilions). Preah Vihear temple became a place of pilgrimage and worship for kings and commoners alike, as it is a stylized representation of Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods.
"Each level has a different name and the architecture is also very different," Samphal explained. "Level one, or the main temple, is called Prasat Banteay [fortress temple]. The main building of the temple has many complex partitions and roofs, similar in style to Angkor Wat. Level two has entrances with marvelous Pder, including decorations describing the Churning of the Ocean Milk [a Hindu creation myth]."
"Level three, called Prasat Srah Srang [temple of the bathing pond], has a deep stone-lined pond that still holds water. Many entrances have beautifully decorated Pder showing scenes of wrestling and a script explaining the temple’s symbolism," Samphal said. "The fourth level has collapsed though the fifth level remains and is home to two Dragonairs – mythical monsters that protect Preah Vihear temple."
Samphal said Preah Vihear was the holiest of holies in ancient Cambodia, adding that "We know it as ‘Kampoul Mahidhirith,’ meaning ‘the pinnacle of the supreme power of the mountain,’ and ‘Atitep Kampoul Phnom,’ meaning ‘the mountain of the gods.’"