India's Soft-Power:Call Comes From The East!
Dr Adityanjee

There has been renewed fighting over the last few weeks between two Asian nations Thailand and Cambodia, in India’s near abroad region, over the 9th Century Hindu Temple complex situated on a mountain-top. Preah Vihear is a Shiva Temple constructed by the Hindu Khmer kings from 9th Century to 11th Century CE. Later on it came under Buddhist influence when Thailand ruled over the northwestern Cambodia from the late 18th century until the early 20th century. In the early part of the 20th century French colonialists expelled the Thais to current international border. The dispute between the two nations is longstanding and is based on different interpretations of a French colonial map. In 1962 the International Court of Justice in The Hague awarded the temple complex to Cambodia. In July 2008 the temple complex was declared as the World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. Thailand opposed it on grounds that the territory around the temple was never demarcated between the two countries. The current conflict is precipitated by the Thai electoral politics between the “red-shirts” and the “yellows-shirts” and possibility of electoral defeat of the Prime Minister Abhisit Veijajiva in the next general elections. Clearly, hyper-nationalism drives this
longstanding dispute between two of our neighbors. It would be naïve to presume that any international intervention would quickly resolve this complex problem with strong nationalistic overtones.

UN Role:
Cambodia has taken this serious issue to UN Security Council as it threatens the regional stability. The Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has already written a letter to Ban-ki Moon and decided to take the dispute and the recent clashes to the UN Security Council where India is one of the non-permanent members. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Veijajiva has demanded that “the Cambodian practice of stationing military forces at the temple must end entirely”. Cambodian Foreign Ministry has denied this charge and said “there have never been and there will never be Cambodian soldiers at the Temple of Preah Vihear”. Cambodia also called for UN peacekeepers to help maintain peace and tranquility across the Thai-Cambodian border and to prevent further military clashes. Both Cambodia and Thailand are the members of ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations). The ASEAN charter mandates renunciation of force and use of military in solving bilateral disputes. Some persons of eminence from the region have called for ASEAN mediation in this intra-ASEAN conflict. All this prompted calls for restraint by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who expressed “deep concern” at the emerging clashes between the two nations. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova also issued an appeal for calm and restraint around the temple in order to safeguard this World Heritage Site for all the humanity.

Temple is currently in dilapidated state and any further escalation of military hostilities might damage the structure. Any possible UN peace-keeping mission must start with an acknowledgement of the fact that this is a Hindu Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva where a large number of devotees still throng for religious services. It is worth noting that Islamic countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh have traditionally provided troops for various UN missions. The UN must avoid deployment of troops from countries that are either Islamic or Christian on the territories of a Hindu Temple. Considering the religious sensitivities involved, only Hindu and Buddhist peace-keeping forces should be deployed by the UN in order to prevent any possible intentional or unintentional desecration of an ancient and revered Hindu Temple by the uninformed UN peacekeepers.

Indian role:
Indian media is generally silent on this dispute in India’s neighbor-hood although this may have long-term geo-political significance. Except for a coupe of news-items in the Hindu from Chennai, there has been no media coverage. Indian media is more preoccupied with Egypt, Tunisia and broader middle-east related issues. Indian strategic community is equally silent on this dispute between two traditionally India-friendly nations in our neighborhood. The Ministry for External Affairs and the Government of India have not realized the geo-political significance of this dispute. No appeal for restraint has been issued so far. While we aspire to a superpower status and yearn to be permanent member of the UN Security Council, no mediatory efforts have been made so far by the Government of India. Perhaps, as a goodwill gesture, the Government of India and specifically the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) can take a lead in renovating this Hindu Temple just like the famous Angkor Wat was restored by the UNESCO. Perhaps, as a confidence-building measure, the government of India should announce allocation of $ 100 million immediately for the work on renovation and restoration of the Preah Vihear temple complex.

Apparently, Indian civil society has no time for another Hindu temple dispute with international ramifications. Indian civil society has been very vocal on the issues related to Palestine, sending relief ships to Gaza strip so as to defeat the Israel-imposed naval blockade of Gaza. In absence of any mediatory efforts by the government of India, there is a role for track II diplomacy on behalf of Indian civil society in immediate containment and long-term resolution of this dispute. Indian NGOs working in the related fields can take initiative and have a possible role in mediation between the two neighbours. Efforts should be made to use Dharma principles like peace, harmony and universal brotherhood to defuse the situation and avoid further blood-shed. Perhaps, it will make sense to arrange an international Yoga camp near the Preah Vihear Temple in order defuse the situation. Under Dharmic leadership, joint sovereignty could be considered as one of the possible solutions.

This regional Dharmic dispute has long-term geo-political implications. India needs to take pro-active steps to maintain and extend its soft-power. India could partner with Japan in the mediating and facilitating role as two ancient Asian civilizations. India’s role as a civilisational power is meaningless if we can not utilize our soft-power to the common good of humanity in resolving disputes in our near abroad region. India should enter as a suave and moderating influence in aiming to resolve this dispute. Enhancing peace and stability on the Thai-Cambodian border will go a long way in establishing India’s credentials as a benign power in the ASEAN region.

Dr. Adityanjee is the President of the Council for Strategic Affairs, New Delhi

Published Date : 16 February, 2011

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