The Role of Preah Vihear in Hun Sen’s Nationalism Politics, 2008–2013

Phimmasone Michael Rattanasengchanh


From 2003 to 2013, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen benefitted politically from promoting nationalism through the Preah Vihear dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. In contrast, Thai con-servatives had mixed results when they laid claim to Preah Vihear and tried to use the temple to bolster their political positions. When it came to media coverage of the temple and border issue, Thailand’s domestic and foreign politics, rather than Cambodia’s, dominated the narrative. As a result, both countries engaged in a war of words and several military clashes between 2008 and 2013. Thailand was widely viewed as the instigator and Cambodia as the victim. However, a closer look at Cambodia’s reactions to Thailand’s provocations reveals an important part of the story. These quarrels and conflicts seemed to arise before major elections in Cambodia. Behind the front lines, Hun Sen used Preah Vihear and a conflict with a historical adversary to build political prestige, nationalism, and anti-Thai sentiments, co-opting it as a part of his political platform. Hun Sen employed the temple and the border dispute in his rhetoric and created public relations events celebrating the government’s protection of Cambodia’s sovereignty and national prestige. Among other factors, Preah Vihear helped Hun Sen win elections and maintain political power by vilifying Thailand and using nationalism. The temple became a powerful nationalistic symbol.

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