Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's in a Map?

Several of my friends overseas have asked me to "explain Cambodia."  As if she could be explained in the space of a couple of hundred words.  But certainly there is a lot of propaganda, prejudice, and preconception going on about an argument that appears to be about a relatively insignificant chunk of territory located on the very edge of a cliff upon which an arbitrary border appears to fall.

So what follows is a highly oversimplified overview for the benefit of those friends of mine abroad who have been sending me frantic emails.  They seem to think that there's something going on here akin to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The only real expert on this subject is my dad, the only surviving member of a legal team that represented Thailand before the International Court almost half a century ago.  He's been on TV quite a lot lately, analysing the niceties of the legal situation at length.  My dear mama has also jumped into the fray, publishing a book that also "explains all" of the legalistic morass in layman's terms.  An interesting adjunct to the confusion is that Thailand's Prime Minister has publicly stated that my father agrees completely with his own position on the issue ... a declaration with which my father has taken issue.

My mother's book is being launched on Thursday, but every indication is that it will sell out before the launch and have to go back to press.  Bravo to her!

Almost all of this discussion has been in Thai, whereas Cambodia has been first out of the gate on the international front; I think that certain prejudicial attitudes in Thai society towards Cambodia and Cambodians in general may have caused Thailand to underestimate the impact of Cambodia's PR skills.  Something I hear a lot is "But surely those farangs realize that Cambodians always lie."  This sort of bias isn't, in the end, very helpful to one's own case.

I think that to understand this conflict one must appreciate that the little bit of land under dispute is not the main issue and in a sense, isn't even the issue at all.  There are in fact centuries of angst underlying all this and there is really nothing that can be done about the piece of land that will really assuage the underlying angst.  I think we have to step back and consider much more fundamental issues such as: What is a country?  What is an ethnic identity?  What is a culture? and we cannot ignore the biggest elephant in the room: colonialism —  France and Britain, and the damage inflicted on the Southeast Asian peoples in terms of their sense of who they are, who they think they are, and who they think they ought to become.

For much of the last 800 years or so, the history of Southeast Asia has been one of a group of city-states, each trying to expand its hegemony over as many other city-states as possible. At different times, different city-states were in the ascendancy.  Control of what is now Cambodia was, during the nineteenth century, hotly argued over by Siam and Vietnam ... But the notion of there being "countries" in the region, each one consisting largely of a homogenous people sharing a culture and language, would have been an alien idea in those times. Even in Europe, this idea is not terribly old.

King Rama IV had studied Britain and France very thoroughly, and he understood that for Siam to be able to hold its own, it too must be a "country" in the sense that Britain and France conceived the word.  Britain and France had "empires", and it therefore followed that there was a "Siamese Empire" as well, one that encompassed many ethnic groups and many cultures.  The very idea of Siam, therefore, was forged in the image of a western nation, and the fact that this idea of "a nation" existed made it much more difficult for Britain and France to simply draw a line through the middle of Siam and split it in two.

They could, however, and did, come charging in with their big guns and demand territorial concessions ... pieces of this "empire" ... because, as a junior "empire" in its own right, Siam presumably had possessions and could hand them over in order to protect its own sovereignty and integrity as a nation.  Around 1906, it did hand over some territories to France and Britain.  Essentially, at gunpoint.

One of those possessions was a very large chunk of what is now Cambodia, including such important locations as Angkor Wat.  The French attached a map delineating the new border, which, through incompetent surveying, did not agree with the actual text of its treaty.  The treaty clearly stated that the waterline was the new border; on the map, a slip of the pen sliced off the edge of one particular cliff, stranding the temple in Cambodia.  But Siam signed.  When your survival is at issue, you do what you have to do.

Now, during the Second World War, the Japanese occupied Southeast Asia and Siam did what most countries do when threatened by superior force of arms: it collaborated.  As a reward, its borders were miraculously restored to pre-1906.  So during the war, those territories were in Siam again.  Indeed, as a child I knew a number of people who had grown up in what is now Cambodia, who never felt that the places they lived in were anything other than Thai.  After the war, the territories were not returned to the people of those territories ... they were returned to their colonial owners.  Thus, Angkor Wat was now in France again.   When independence came, France and Britain did not return any territories to Siam.  These territories were nowimagined to be "countries" in the western sense, and as such, they were born as countries for the first time.  But their borders were not based on any logic of culture or ethnicity — purely on the boundaries of whatever Britain and France had been able to steal before.

The little temple on the cliff's edge is therefore a symbol.  It stands for everything that the people of the region have suffered not only at the hands of colonial powers but also at each other's hands.  As a symbol, it's much more than a patch of dirt with an ancient building on it.

The International Court's ruling was an extremely narrow one, pleasing no one and heavily favoring the colonial status quo.   Thailand was excoriated for not objecting to the map in the first place, though how one can object with a bunch of cannon pointed at one I do not know.  The little ledge was to be part of Cambodia, but at the same time the court refused to rule on the validity of the map even though the map clearly disagreed with the treaty, and the court also allowed for all sorts of loopholes for future rulings should "further facts come to light".

Why does Cambodia care so much about this ledge?  Because the temple is built in an architectural style, and belongs to a historical epoch, in which the Khmer culture held sway over a far greater territory than today's Cambodia.  In that sense, it is a "Khmer temple" they say, and Cambodia is the land of the Khmers.   By the same token of course you could say that Hadrian's Wall is a Roman artifact, and therefore England should be in Italy.

And why does Thailand care so much?  Is it not the same reason that England clung to Calais for centuries?  So much territory has been swallowed up ... this little piece, so tantalizingly accessible (and so difficult to access from the Cambodian side) has come to stand for the entire loss.  It is bitterness and anger over having had so much snatched away at gunpoint.  Getting this little piece of land would seem to finally close up the gaping wound left by France.

In both cases, the final issue is not the land, but face.  As long as these feelings run so deep, and as long as we don't even bother to acknowledge the ancient causes of this quarrel, it will never really matter who actually possesses that ledge.  Only the resentment will matter.   None of the usual solutions: political, legal, or military, can really satisfy everyone.

I can imagine a solution.  It's an artist's vision of a way out, therefore, and probably could never happen, but I propose it anyway.   It is to do away completely with all borders within the region.  There are some who would read the above solution as simply an underhanded way to restore the Siamese Empire to its former size and beyond, but really the concept of "empire" is a bit passé by now, isn't it?

Rather, I mean it would be nice to have a Greater Southeast Asia in which the various regions retain their identity and culture, but citizens travel freely and governments work jointly to preserve all historical sites no matter which region they're located in.  In which people acknowledge that the past is a shared past.  In time, people should no longer care what country things are in, and begin to think regionally ... and, eventually, globally.

No doubt we will have all destroyed ourselves before the advent of such a utopia.

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