Lessons from Preah Vihear: Thailand, Cambodia, and the Nature of Low-Intensity Border Conflicts

Martin Wagener


In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Preah Vihear temple lies within Cambodian territory. The status of the 4.6 km² of land surrounding the temple, however, remained unclear. When UNESCO declared the Preah Vihear temple a Cambodian World Heritage Site in July 2008, the situation was exacerbated. Several firefights between October 2008 and April/May 2011 claimed at least 34 lives. The border dispute became a rollercoaster ride along the way: Talks between Thailand and Cambodia were regularly interrupted by exchanges of fire, only to be resumed a little later. This prevented a resolution of the conflict. The essay explores how Thailand’s and Cambodia’s conflict behaviour can be explained from a first-image perspective. In doing so, uncovering the motives of both countries’ prime ministers is crucial to understanding Bangkok’s and Phnom Penh’s actions in the border area. The paper argues that in low-intensity border conflicts, motivations are different from those underlying heads of government’s behaviour in high-intensity border conflicts. While this complicates an agreement on the Preah Vihear question, it also means that escalation to a manifest border war is very unlikely.

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