Southeast Asian studies expert, historian and former director of Thammasat University Charnvit Kasetsiri talks to The Nation's Pravit Rojanaphruk about the feud between Thailand and Cambodia over Preah Vihear Temple that is threatening to turn ugly. Excerpts:
What do you think of the sudden frenzy of ultra-nationalistic feeling among Thais over the past weeks?
I see it as a very sad case. It's a reversal of the development wheel which turned the [Indo-China] battlefield into a market place and looks very dangerous. The second observation is that on one hand it is escalating into a serious conflict between Thailand and Cambodia and on the other hand it's worsening Thai domestic politics, which is already complicated. It might be the last straw before a calamity.
What calamity are you referring to?
Calamity in the sense that society is coming to the end of an era. Strange enough, considering that Preah Vihear and Phanom Rung, which was recently vandalised, are both involved. [Hindu God] Shiva would dance the dance of destruction and destroy everything. Vishnu would spring out of a lotus with Brahma the God of creation in there and Brahma would recreate a new order. I think it symbolises the end of an era. Preah Vihear is a black hole and a lot of people will go up there and fall down the Mor E-Daeng cliff.
Isn't it surprising to you that many Thai protesters may have never visited the temple or even paid any interest to its history?
For politicians and de facto politicians, they discovered that Preah Vihear is very useful and effective because most people from the generations who're now in their 50s to 80s grew up under an intense nationalistic campaign [by Thai state] of the 1940s to the 70s. That's why the issue is so effective.
When we lost Preah Vihear in 1962, people in more than 50 provinces staged protests and contributed one baht each.
They were made to believe that Thailand would win the case [at the World Court] 300 per cent. That's why it was a shock for the Thai public.
So it's a psychological problem and a wounded history and that's why it can ignite right away. We don't listen to any reasoning or any explanation at all.
We don't even think that King Chulalongkorn agreed with France in 1904 and 1907 to trade Siem Reap, Preah Vihear and other areas for what today is the central eastern provinces of Thailand. We don't look back at that part of history anymore. This year Trat province is celebrating its 101st year of its return to Thailand.
Some are saying the issue, fuelled by the People's Alliance for Democracy, is bringing out the worse in Thai nationalistic sentiment. Do you see any difference between patriotism and ultra-nationalism?
In Thai I use the expressions rak chart [love for one's country] and klang chart [infatuated about one's nation]. Love is a good thing but madness is no good.
Madness leads us into all kinds of trouble and we'll go down the black hole.
The current frenzy has nothing to do with local people in Si Sa Ket province [where Preah Vihear is situated on the border]. This is a very urban nationalism.
Any advice to the Samak Sundaravej administration or the anti-government PAD?
Well, I don't know. I'm very pessimistic. I see almost no way out.
I have suggested that we should get the two governments to sit and create a peace land there - no-man's land.
[As for the PAD] I don't think they will listen to me. I think the situation is hopeless. They are burning down the forest just to get rid of one big [political] rat.
Source: The Nation, July 24, 2008