Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Narrating the National Border: Cambodian State Rhetoric vs Popular Discourse on the Preah Vihear Conflict

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Narrating the National Border: Cambodian State Rhetoric vs Popular Discourse on the Preah Vihear Conflict

Article excerpt

On 23 April 2012, I went on my first extended field trip to the border province of Preah Vihear in northern Cambodia and I was surprised. I was expecting to see very few people travelling on the bus to an undeveloped border province. However, the bus was completely full when it departed Phnom Penh station. The driver stopped regularly to pick up more passengers, who were squeezed into the aisle. The driver said, 'My company started a daily bus service to Preah Vihear just a few years ago after the government built good roads.' (1) A long-time Preah Vihear resident sitting next to me on the bus commented, 'Many of the houses you saw along the road are new settlements. Previously it was all forest.' (2) After spending approximately seven hours on the bus, I arrived in Tbeng Meanchey, the capital of Preah Vihear province. The city also looked different from what I had imagined. I had pictured a dilapidated rural backwater. But there were concrete houses, guesthouses, hotels, banks and other signs of modernity. A resident expressed my thoughts, 'The city has changed so rapidly over the last few years.' (3)

After spending five days interviewing people in the city, I went to Preah Vihear Temple by taxi. It took us two hours to travel the distance of approximately 100 km on the new asphalt road. Along the way, I saw patches of cleared forest, cash crop plantations and new settlements. About 30 km from the temple, there was a new border town called Sra Em. A tailor in the town, a migrant from Kampong Cham province, told me, 'I came here two years ago. It is easier to earn a living here than in my home province.' (4)

These first impressions of life in the province made me realise the disjuncture between the Cambodian state elites' nationalist narrative and Preah Vihear residents' everyday views of the situation. The ruling elites through the state-affiliated media constructed a discourse of a conflict that threatened the nation, describing their responses to this threat as a defence of Preah Vihear Temple and the border territories. However, my research found that the provincial residents' everyday discourses on the conflict differed dramatically from this nationalist narrative. There were many different local ideas of nation, nationalism, and heritage site.

This does not mean, however, that people in the province were indifferent to nationalism, or that they did not support the government's nation-building projects. It is just that their views of Preah Vihear Temple and development projects have localised and nuanced meanings, different from the state's nationalist discourse. In spite of the state's massive propaganda campaigns, it has not convinced Preah Vihear residents to adopt its nationalist narrative wholesale.

Although there are many English language studies on the Preah Vihear temple dispute, many of them tend to focus on the historical and legal dimensions of the contested claims, including the roles of Thailand, and of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (5) My study, however, examines the conflict through the rhetoric of the Cambodian state elites and the views of residents of Preah Vihear province. Inspired by Eric Hobsbawm's suggestion that the study of nation and nationalism should incorporate both top-down and bottom-up approaches, (6) my research includes analysis from below. My bottom-up approach examines popular views of the Thai-Cambodian border conflict and of the Cambodian state's nation-building projects in Preah Vihear province. Many ordinary people view the state-built roads and other public infrastructure as practical improvements benefiting them and enhancing local potential, not grand symbols associated with national meaning, border defence and Khmer pride. (7)

The research followed a qualitative methodology. In addition to relying on primary and secondary data, I made observations, conducted 45 in-depth and 4 focus group interviews, and recorded 14 informal conversations during multi-sited fieldwork in Preah Vihear province between April and July 2012 and again in December 2013. …

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