Much more than a simple archeological site, Preah Vihear has been the subject of a bitter and often bloody tug-of-war between Thailand and Cambodia, as well as the setting for several landmark moments in the Cambodian civil war – although despite the fierce fighting that has regularly erupted around it, the temple itself has, almost miraculously, escaped relatively unscathed (although you might notice a few bullet holes here and there).
The roots of the Thai – Cambodian border conflict date back over a century. The area was under long-term Thai control until the intervention of the French authorities in Cambodia in 1907. Attempting to ratify the border between the two countries, the French produced a map claiming the temple for Cambodia, despite an agreement that the border should run along the watershed of the Dangrek Mountains – which would have placed the temple within Thai territory. Following the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in 1954, Thai forces reoccupied the site in an attempt to assert their rights to the temple, forcing Prime Minister Sihanouk to take the matter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague which, in a fiercely contested ruling, finally awarded the site to Cambodia in 1962.
Thanks to its almost impregnable location, the temple played a surprisingly important role during the civil war. In 1975, Khmer Rouge forces drove out remnants of the Khmer National Armed Forces who had taken refuge in it – the last place in Cambodia to fall to them. In 1978, Vietnamese forces recaptured the site from the Khmer Rouge – who then reoccupied the site in 1993 and continued to control it before finally surrendering in 1998; their last major stand. The temple was also the scene (in 1979) of a particularly brutal repatriation of Cambodian refugees by the Thai military government during which more than forty thousand people were driven back over the border. As many as three thousand died after being forced over the cliff on which the temple stands and driven through the minefields below.
Following the end of the civil war, the old border dispute flared up again in 2008, when Preah Vihear was awarded UNESCO Heritage status – which Thailand felt further reinforced Cambodian claims to sole ownership of the temple, and which they continued to dispute. Rising tensions ensued, followed by a series of increasingly violent clashes, with dozens of military and civilian casualties on both sides, culminating in 2011 in an exchange of long-range artillery fire. The case was again returned to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, who (in November 2013) once again ruled in Cambodia’s favour. Peace has subsequently returned to the temple following the new ruling, with access now open from both sides of the border, although the loss of the temple continues to rankle with many Thai nationalists and offers easy political capital for Bangkok politicians seeking a popular national cause, meaning that the possibility of future clashes cannot be ruled out entirely.