October 7, 2009
SPECIAL TO THE NATION
On 30 January 1929, Prince Damrong Rajanupab arrived at Preah Vihear as head of an official expedition from the Siamese court of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII). There to welcome him was the French commissioner for the Cambodian province along with the archaeologist Henri Parmentier, who was to act as guide for the expedition's trip up Panom Dongrek mountain to see its famed centuries-old Hindu temple.
The prince and the commissioner exchanged speeches of friendship at a cheerful reception attended by the entourage of high-ranking Siamese noblemen, before listening to a lecture on Preah Vihear Temple given by the French archaeologist. Fluttering above this happy scene was the flag of France.
"This is recorded history - a history that must not be forgotten by Thai students," said historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, at a talk titled "The Contested Temple" given recently at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand.
"Prince Damrong accepted that Preah Vihear belonged to French Indochina," noted Charnvit, as he showed photographs of the prince and French commissioner posing together beneath the French flag. But the history that most Thai students are taught focuses on the loss of territory, he added, citing a Thai textbook for Grade 6 students.
"It asks us to remember the loss of territories beginning with Penang and ending with Preah Vihear Temple. But by ignoring Prince Damrong's visit in 1929, it effectively tells us to forget about the truth.
"This is history infected with nationalism."
Charnvit went on to show how the "infection" reaches beyond schoolbooks and into tourism - a brochure welcoming tourists to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai talks about the "Losses of Territories and Survival of Siam", while Samut Prakan's Muang Boran [Ancient City] contains a replica of Preah Vihear.
Nationalism and tourism go together, he concluded.
The current case of Preah Vihear reflects the kind of "selective history" that stirs nationalistic feeling and leads to war-mongering threats to take back "lost territory", he said.
Following Prince Damrong's visit, Preah Vihear was left in peace for over a decade. Then, in 1940 the government of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram added the Hindu temple to its list of Thai archaeological sites.
Though the addition was announced in the pages of the Royal Gazette, there is no evidence that Cambodia's French rulers noticed it. In 1954, the year after Cambodia won independence, Pibul sent Thai troops to occupy the area around the Preah Vihear site. But Thai history tends to ignore this event, preferring to focus on the claim made by King Sihanouk at the International Court of Justice in 1959, which in 1962 awarded the temple to Cambodia.
Charnvit, now 67, recalled how nationalism was working on him the day he heard of the "loss of territory" brought by the court's judgement.
"It was a shock because all the news, all the PR from the military government, told us we were winning for sure," he said.
"We believed that Preah Vihear belonged to us. I was a 21-year-old student. I was so angry. I marched with about a hundred Thammasat University students up Rajdamnoen Avenue. I had a photo of King Sihanouk, which I tore apart, threw down on the street and trampled."
Finally, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, leader of the military government at the time, made an appearance on television to say the government had no choice but to accept the ruling of the court.
Now, after almost half a century, the version of history that tells of the "loss" of Preah Vihear has been brought up to stir nationalism in Thailand once again, with nationalists saying they refuse to accept the International Court's 1962 judgement.
Bad history creates false perceptions and false perceptions lead to conflict between neighbours, the historian said.
"Our history texts must be revised and corrected to reflect the truth. Only that way will we be able to live together peacefully in this age of regionalism and globalisation."