Hague Magic

from Press News, posted 04/15/2013 - 08:25

Finally, after years of dispute and even some fighting between Thailand and Cambodia, clarification of the vexed issue of ownership of the historic Preah Vihear temple and its surroundings is to go before the International Court of Justice in the Hague this week. Perhaps recognising the passions generated by the issue among both Thai and Cambodians, the hearings will be broadcast live and in full by the Court. And, since the first days of the hearings coincide with Buddhist New Year (Songkran in Thailand, Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia), a lot of people perhaps will tune into what is broadcast.

Much of the proceedings will comprise two rounds of oral argument, first by Cambodia and then by Thailand, after which the judges will retire; a verdict is expected by October. If all goes as planned, the judges will hear legal arguments backed up by historical evidence. Use of magic is not expected.

Strange though it may sound, magic has played a part in the Preah Vihear dispute and, more than anything else, its use shows a different face of Buddhism than the peaceful, meditative image usually associated with that faith. (That said, ‘peaceful’ is hardly the word to describe the actions of some Burmese monks recently in nearby Myanmar.)

Preah Vihear has a spectacular setting on a cliff top in the Dângrêk Mountains (the natural border between Thailand and Cambodia), looking out on the plains of Cambodia to the south. Construction of the first temple on the site began in the early 9th century but much of the present temple dates from the 11th and 12th centuries. In its time, Preah Vihear not only had the most spectacular setting of all the temples built in the six centuries during which the Khmer empire flourished but also it was a key edifice of the empire’s spiritual life, hence supported and modified by successive kings.

With the fall of the empire, however, much of Cambodia including this region fell under Thai suzerainty. Only in the early 20th century, as the French extended their Indochinese colony, were the Thais pushed back. In 1907, the French delineated a border that followed the watershed line of the Dângrêk Mountains – except, that is, at Preah Vihear where the border was nudged further north so that the temple could be included in French territory. For a few years during World War II, the temple and many other ‘lost territories’ were reclaimed by the Thais but these gains were again lost in 1945. After Cambodian independence in 1953, the border issue flared up again with the Thais claiming they had never accepted the French deviation; Thai troops then occupied the temple. In 1962, the International Court of Justice narrowly decided in Cambodia’s favour, judging that the temple belonged to Cambodia but failed to be clear where the actual border was.

Although legal ownership of the temple passed to Cambodia, in practice for many decades access to the site was mainly from Thailand due to the physical terrain. However, the decades of civil war, genocide and chaos in Cambodia following 1970 meant that few visited the site until the last remaining Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered there in 1998. Visits from the Thai side then resumed immediately but it was not until 2003 that an access road up the cliff was completed from the Cambodian side.

What sparked the current conflict, however, was the listing of Preah Vihear as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. This proclamation was made despite Thai objections, earlier Thai cooperation in the process being undermined by the domestic political situation (the Yellow Shirt insurgency). Attempts by Thai nationalists to plant the Thai flag at the temple quickly led to a build up of military forces by both countries in the area. Eventually, this would lead to armed clashes and soldiers being killed on both sides.

Adding to the tensions in August 2008 was the arrival at the site of Bun Rany, wife of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen; here she conducted a Buddhist ritual joined by thousands of Cambodians. Many Thais accused Bun Rany of conducting black magic aimed to weaken Thailand (not the first such accusation). In response, across the border in Thailand there was a mass wearing of yellow to protect the country against this magic. In addition, the Yellow Shirts organised big public counter-rituals.

To dismiss these actions as superstition and indeed reject the notion that magic could be a weapon in international disputes is to miss the point. Thailand and Cambodia are not alone in having a long history of engagement in spiritualist and animistic magical practices. In their case, this originates from the time when Hinduism and Buddhism first arrived in the region; here they encountered and absorbed indigenous traditions in which spirits and magic played important roles. The result was development of a multi-facetted Buddhism. In the upper reaches of society a more ‘pure’ form of Buddhism was practised while among the broad populace a more syncretic, popular faith was celebrated. In this setting, then, such a belief in and use of magic is not surprising.

Such beliefs are explored by Trudy Jacobsen in her Lost Goddesses, published by NIAS Press in 2007. In a cogent deconstruction of ‘traditional’ Cambodian society, she recounts:

According to popular legend, the monastery of Vihear Thom in Kratie province was built on the bodies of one hundred virgins who were crushed to death in the foundations to accompany the spirit of Princess Krapum Chhouk, who was killed by a crocodile nearby. The resulting brai kramom [ghostly virgins] protected the monastery.

At the same time, she describes how King Ang Duong – influenced by his 30-year upbringing at the Thai court – brought a more austere form of Buddhism into Cambodia from Siam from the mid-19th century. In time this Thai import became identified with traditional Khmer values, first by the ruling elite and ultimately by most educated Cambodians.

A similar duality is evident in Thai Buddhism, with again (put simplistically) there being a more ‘refined’ Buddhism followed by educated Thais and much more of a folk religion practiced by the mass of Thais, especially in the countryside. Our understanding of Thai beliefs in spirits and magic owes much to the pioneering work undertaken by T.J. (Baas) Terwiel, whose groundbreaking Monks and Magic was first published more than three decades ago. The fourth (and most comprehensively revised) edition of this study was published by NIAS Press last year.

So what does this mean for the deliberations undertaken at the International Court of Justice in the Hague next week? Probably nothing. But for ordinary Thais and Cambodians, taking time off from their New Year celebrations to watch the Court’s proceedings live on TV, Preah Vihear continues to exert a power (if not magic) coming worlds away from a courtroom in Holland.

As for relations between Cambodia and Thailand, these could always do with a magical improvement, especially over the Preah Vihear issue.


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