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The remote, mist-wreathed Hindu temple of Preah Vihear is not an obvious place to start a war. Lost in the jungly Dangrek highlands of the Thai-Cambodian frontier, it hasn't seen much activity since its heyday in the 11th century. Until recently the only visitors were intrepid, saffron-robed monks, or the occasional smuggler or refugee.

But now it is the epicentre of a military conflict which has seen a series of bloody skirmishes, and the killing of two Cambodian soldiers. The international fracas could, very easily, flare up until full-scale war between the two South-East Asian countries.


The proximate cause of the scuffle is a land dispute. In 1962, after a decades-long argument about ownership, the International Court of Justice in The Hague awarded the temple to Cambodia. Crucially, the land surrounding the temple was left in Thai possession: this became a factor in 2008, when the wistful grey ruins were named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Cambodians were delighted with the UNESCO designation, until they realised that they would not entirely benefit from the anticipated tourism: the Thais would also gain, by ferrying visitors to Preah Vihear across Thai territory. The Cambodians have therefore laid a second claim to the surrounding lands; the Thais have stoutly objected, with some Bangkok politicians urging annexation of the temple itself.

In other words, it's all very complex. But also, on the face of it, quite trivial: certainly not a cause for shooting people.

So what is the ultimate rationale behind the face-off? To find the answer, you have to travel across the border, and ask people what they think of their neighbours, and thereby uncover the envenomed psychology.

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