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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Gods in the JUNGLE

12,000 people called it home, and 80,000 worked towards its upkeep. Today, the roots of trees are all that keep the Cambodian temple of Ta Prohm from oblivion n lindsay pereira

The music grew louder with every step. Accompanying it was the sucking sound made by wet earth, as I walked beneath massive trees on my way to the temple of Ta Prohm. As I turned a corner, the source of the music appeared through the mild drizzle. It was a group of ragged locals, sitting under a tent and creating a rhythmic, hypnotic rhythm. Some were blind; others held percussive instruments between stubs that were once feet. Victims of a 25-year old civil war, they were survivors. And, for a world that had forgotten them, they were creating music.

It was, with hindsight, the perfect setting for my first glimpse of Ta Prohm, a name derived from a dedication to Lord Brahma. Like a dirge, the music created a backdrop against which the crumbling walls of the temple appeared. It was a view that had stayed the same for decades, the stone held firmly in place by the massive roots of silk cottonwood and strangler fig trees. It was a strange state of limbo for what in the late 12th century was born Rajavihara, the ‘royal temple’, built by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII.

Begun in 1186 AD, this was to be a Buddhist monastery and university. Family was clearly important to the king, considering the temple’s main image was allegedly modelled on his mother, while smaller temples within the enclosure were dedicated to his elder brother and his teacher. Those calm faces staring down for centuries, at visitors from foreign shores, were all that remained of what was once a powerful kingdom.

As I stepped into an enclosure of fallen columns and sunlight-dappled ground, it was hard to imagine what life here was like eight centuries ago. According to the guidebook The Monuments of the Angkor Group, first published in 1944 by Maurice Glaize, this was once home to over 12,000 people, including 18 high priests and more than 600 dancers. Some 80,000 people living in villages nearby offered services and supplies. A full temple treasury enabled the complex to expand until the end of the 13th century.

And then, in the 15th century, the Khmer empire collapsed. Temples was abandoned everywhere, and the forest slowly closed in. While the world outside struggled with mundane issues like war and the clash of civilisations, Ta Prohm slept undisturbed. When it was eventually re-discovered early in the 20th century, an unusual decision was made to leave it as it was. Glaize says this was done only to Ta Prohm because it was the one temple that had ‘best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming part of it.’

It was easy to see why Ta Prohm was among the most popular temples in the massive archaeological park that held Angkor Wat. It was all thanks to the trees. An ironic situation, considering they now held the temple in a vice-like grip that could no longer be broken. Maurice Glaize described, almost lovingly, their ‘long spreading skirts trailing the ground and their endless roots coiling more like reptiles than plants.’ The effect was eerie. It’s why Hollywood wanted it as a backdrop, and got it for the Angelina Jolie-starrer Tomb Raider. Apart from the stunning architecture, what gave the ruins of Angkor Wat much of its character was its mysterious past. When King Suryavarman—the predecessor of Jayavarman VII—died, work on Angkor stopped abruptly. The temples were sacked by enemies of the Khmer people, the Chams, and restored by Jayavarman VII.

Now, as tourists lined up beneath the strangling roots for photographs to send home, I thought about how this calm still seemed illusory. Not many countries could boast a history as bloody as Cambodia’s. After the 19th century came to a close, the 20th saw the rise of the infamous Khmer Rouge. There was little damage to temple structures during that bloody reign, but a large number of statues were stolen or destroyed. The passage of time still refused to guarantee peace. Riots erupted in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh as late as 2003, after a false rumour spread, of a Thai soap star claiming Angkor belonged to Thailand.

I walked through crumbling halls that must undoubtedly have once been grand, thinking about how the Vietnam War had left Cambodia with over six million landmines. One in every 236 Cambodians had lost a limb due to a mine explosion. The music outside, barely discernable, was a reminder no one paid heed to. It was now a souvenir, available on CD for $10.

As I continued on my way out, the devtas on temple walls turned eyes of stone towards me and smiled calm, placid smiles. The world outside had changed irrevocably since they were carved into being. For them, however, our history was just a moment in time. As I stepped into the sunlight, the music played on.

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Temple row may cause rift between countries

Cambodia issues Preah Vihear warning

Flaring nationalist sentiment in Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple issue threatens to harm ties between the neighbours, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong warned yesterday.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said the government is ready to reverse its decision to accept a revised border map if Thai people disagree.

The two countries have reached a deal, setting the map around the Preah Vihear temple, so Cambodia can apply to Unesco for a World Heritage listing.

But Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama has come under fire for agreeing to the deal, which became a key issue in the censure debate that ended on Thursday with the seven targetted ministers and Mr Samak winning votes of confidence.

''Politicians in Thailand should not exploit the Preah Vihear temple issue in their domestic struggles,'' Hor Namhong told reporters in Phnom Penh.

''This could damage the cooperation and friendship that exists between the two countries.''

Cambodia this week closed the temple after about 100 Thais, mostly from Si Sa Ket province, marched to the site to protest against the deal, which they say resulted in Thailand losing territory.

But Hor Namhong insisted: ''The drawing of the Preah Vihear map for listing as a World Heritage site does not affect the border at all. Thailand will not lose even one centimetre of land.''

Both countries have historically laid claim to the site, which sits on Cambodian soil but can only be easily accessed from Thailand.

He also denied an accusation by the anti-Thai government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that Thailand's backing of Cambodia's World Heritage bid is in return for business concessions for ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

''This has nothing to do with that. These people used it as a pretext for their own political exploitation,'' the Cambodian foreign minister said.

Mr Samak appeared to have softened his stance on the issue following the censure debate.

He said the contents of the joint communique between Thailand and Cambodia could be reviewed if the Thai public disagreed with it.

In a bid to ease pressure over the temple issue, the Thai Foreign Ministry will issue a 61-page white paper, available at www.mfa.go.th, to clarify Thailand's role.

Krit Kraichitti, director-general of the Treaties and Legal Affairs Department, Anuson Chinvanno, director-general of the East Asia Affairs Department, and ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat yesterday held a press briefing.

They insisted the signing of the joint communique did not obligate Thailand and did not violate the constitution.

The Foreign Ministry also promised to do its best to protect the country's sovereignty and bilateral relations.

According to Mr Tharit, security was being stepped up at the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, but the situation there otherwise remained normal.

A researcher yesterday submitted a petition to the Prime Minister's Office to oppose Cambodia's application.

The petition, signed by 33,000 people, was lodged by historian M.L. Walwipa Charoonroj, of Thammasat University's Thai Studies Institute.

M.L. Walwipa said the signatories objected to Phnom Penh's bid to list the ruins and rejected any obligations Thailand had made with Cambodia.

She said the objection was raised because border disputes between the two countries were not yet settled.

The petition was accepted by Jul layuth Hiranyawasit, permanent secretary of the PM's Office.

The Administrative Court yesterday finished examining the PAD's petition seeking suspension of the joint communique.

The court is expected to decide whether to accept the petition for a hearing on Monday.

The PAD has asked the court to nullify the cabinet resolution on June 17 to endorse Cambodia's map of the temple, which was feared to be used by Phnom Penh to contest Thailand's sovereignty over the contentious overlapping areas.

In Si Sa Ket, former charter drafter Sawet Tinkul yesterday filed a complaint with police against some 500 Cambodian villagers for alleged illegal entry and encroachment.

The Cambodian villagers were accused of building houses, shops and other structures in Phra Viharn (Preah Vihear) National Park's compound.

Police investigators accepted the complaint for review while noting the matter was sensitive and would be handled carefully. _ Agencies and Bangkok Post.

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China, Cambodia hold exhibition on economic, trade cooperation

PHNOM PENH, June 27 (Xinhua) -- China and Cambodia jointly launched here Friday an exhibition on the achievements of economic and trade cooperation between the two countries.

The exhibition, Exhibition of Economic and Trade Cooperation Achievements in Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of China-Cambodia Diplomatic Ties, which will last for three days.

Co-organized by the Chinese embassy in Cambodia, the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce and the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), this exhibition will show the economic and trade cooperation achievements between China and Cambodia at both governmental and non-governmental levels, Cambodian Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said at the opening ceremony of the exhibition.

The Chinese government and people have provided a lot of aids and preferential loans to Cambodia for its economic and social developments, especially for its infrastructure construction, said Hor Nam Hong, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

China has provided Cambodia with 118 aid projects in the past 15 years, including the office buildings of Cambodian Senate, the National Assembly and the Royal Government and the No. 7 National Road, said Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Zhang Jinfeng.

The trade volume between China and Cambodia increased sharply from 12.95 million U.S. dollars in 1992 to 933 million U.S. dollars in 2007, according to the preface of the exhibition.

So far, China has invested 1.76 billion U.S. dollars to Cambodia, becoming the second largest source of Cambodia's Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), it said.

China and Cambodia established the diplomatic relationship on July 19, 1958.
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Cambodia denies Thaksin link in Thai temple spat

By Ek Madra

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia denied on Friday claims by a group trying to oust the Thai government that Bangkok had covertly ceded land near the disputed 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple on their joint border.

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said there was also no truth in the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) assertion that Thailand had backed Cambodia's bid to list the temple as a U.N. World Heritage Site in return for business concessions for ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"This has nothing to do with that. But these people used it as pretext for their own political exploitation," he told a news conference.

"Thailand did not lose any land -- not even a square centimeter or handprint," he said.

"They took up this issue for political purposes in their aims to topple the Thai government, which would hurt the cooperation and friendship with Cambodia."

Preah Vihear, built by Khmer kings in the 11th century at the start of the Angkorian period, sits on top of a jungle-clad escarpment that forms a natural boundary between Cambodia and Thailand and has been a source of tension for decades.

The site was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962 in a decision that rankles with most Thais.

The ruins were off-limits for much of the 1970s to the 1990s, while the temple and surrounding forest were occupied by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia closed the temple again this week for fears a nationalist frenzy whipped up by the anti-Thaksin PAD and the opposition Democrat party during a no-confidence debate in parliament could turn into a major ruction.

Several dozen Thai activists with 40,000 signatures went to

U.N. cultural agency offices and the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok calling for a delay in the listing until both countries had settled the dispute.

"We want to tell them that the people of Thailand disagree with what our stubborn government is doing," campaign leader Walwipha Charoonroj, who said she had received help from the PAD, told Reuters.

Fears of a major fallout over Preah Vihear are not fanciful, given that a nationalist mob torched the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh in 2003 over purported comments from a Thai soap star that Cambodia's Angkor Wat temples actually belonged to Thailand.

After the closure, Defence Minister Tea Banh denied a Thai newspaper report he was sending extra soldiers to the border, but said he was "watching the situation closely".

Tea Banh was quoted last month in Thai newspapers as saying Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, was looking to invest in a resort-style entertainment complex on the Cambodian island of Koh Kong.
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