Border Music

Occasionally in America one is besieged by Western white-people Buddhists, who earnestly and/or smugly declaim that theirs is a practice whose devotees are uber-evolved, having transcended the scourges of Attachment and Strife, that so bedevil bottom-dwellers who have not become suffused with the emanations of The Enlightened One.

Uh-huh. Real Buddhists know better. Aware of their history, understanding that getting oneself Guatamaed has never proved fail-safe in preventing a person from running amok and spilling buckets of blood.

In recent years we have been treated to the spectacle of Cambodia and Thailand, two Buddhist nations, dispatching soldiers to fire upon one another over a disputed temple that each state claims for its own. Perversely, the temple is not even Buddhist: it’s Hindu. I previously wrote a little about it here. Now comes word that Thai artillery-shelling recently collapsed a wing of the temple. Proving that it is not just Western white people who suffer from “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” syndrome.

Construction commenced on Preah Vihear in the early 9th Century; then, as always, it was dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, in his manifestations as the mountain gods Sikharesvara and Bhadresvara. The former is known as “Lord of the Peak”; the latter is apparently a Tantric person, though it is also said he is an invention of a 5th Century Champa potentate who combined his own name with that of Shiva’s.

The temple is built atop Pey Tadi, a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, at roughly 1722 feet. The Dangrek stretch from the Mekong River to the southern arm of another mountain range situated in present-day Thailand. The Dangrek consist of sandstone, slate, and silt, and used to be heavily forested with evergreen trees, until people all over the world needed to live in wood houses and drink from dixie cups. Today, wild pigs, barking deer, rabbits, squirrels, and civet—a sort of stinking cat that hangs out in trees—live there . . . when they can avoid the people and the mines.

The Khmer Empire absorbed the Dangrek in the early 13th Century, less than 50 years after construction at Preah Vihear had been completed. The Khmer were in the midst of converting en masse to Theravada Buddhism—which was all the rage then, having been imported from Sri Lanka—so Preah Vihear became more or less useless at roughly the time it was finished: nobody thereabouts much wanted to be a Hindu anymore. And so folks forgot about it. For nearly 700 years.

Then came white people.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, the Thais, who had managed to avoid becoming fully dominated by any European power, sat down to wrangle over borders with the French, who controlled what was then Siam, and is today Cambodia. Around the area of Preah Vihear, the Thais and the French agreed that the watershed would mark the border. However, the topo map subsequently submitted by French engineers to the Thais “deviated without explanation” from the watershed around Preah Vihear, so as to site the temple with the French.

The Thais, at the time, received the map without comment: seemingly, they didn’t care.

However, in 1954, when the French withdrew from Indochina, the Thais promptly marched in troops and seized control of the temple compound. Newly independent Cambodia commenced screaming. In 1959 the issue was placed before various international bodies, the Thais and Cambodians meanwhile severing diplomatic relations and threatening bloody invasions, all over this disused temple dedicated to gods that neither of them cared about.

Each nation went out and hired itself high-powered white people: arguing the Cambodian side was former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, while the Thais countered with former UK Attorney General Sir Frank Soskice. In the end, the Yanks prevailed over the Beefeaters, and Preah Vihear was declared Cambodian property.

As they had in the early 20th Century, the Thais acquiesced. For a time.

Shortly thereafter Cambodia went all to hell, sucked bloodily into the Great Game between the US and the USSR/China in Southeast Asia. Preah Vihear first became a military redoubt for forces loyal to the doomed Lon Nol, and is said to have been the last acreage in Cambodia to fall to the Khmer Rouge. Then, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge, the latter took sanctuary in the place, and proved extremely difficult to dislodge: it is believed Khmer Rouge cadres occupied the joint as late as 1998.

In the renowned white-people film The Killing Fields, the Dangrek Mountains are portrayed as the last barrier the Cambodian survivor Dith Pran must surmount to reach the safe haven of a refugee camp in Thailand. In real life things were not so rosy: in 1979 the government of Thailand, to Prove A Point—that it would not shoulder alone the burden of providing for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Cambodia—shoved some 40,000 Cambodian refugees back across the border, where, in the area around Preah Vihear, many were blown apart by mines, died of starvation or exposure, or were preyed upon and slain by bandits.

In 2008 UNESCO designated Preah Vihear as one of 27 new World Heritage Sites, said designation acknowledging places of “outstanding universal value.”

Presumably, this was intended to commence A Great Happy. Instead, the Thais erupted into one of their periodic Preah Vihear frenzies. According to the Thais, devious, deviant Frenchmen had stolen the thing back in 1904, and the international community had conspired to cloak this infamy ever since. In 2008 the Thai and Cambodian armies both rushed troops to the site, and they’ve been periodically firing on one another ever since.

The UNESCO site blithely informs us that “[t]his site is particularly well-preserved, mainly due to its remote location[;] the site is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation.” But it’s hard really to know what it looks like these days, because people keep shooting and shelling it.

In 2009 Thai soldiers inflicted “significant” damage to 66 stones of the temple. This following an M79-grenade bombardment that was said to have damaged the temple in 120 separate places during the previous October.

And now we hear Thai artillery-fire has collapsed a wing of the thing:

The latest fighting broke out Friday in an area close to Preah Vihear, and shelling Saturday caused minor damage to the temple’s facade. There were reports that Sunday’s fighting had spread closer to the temple itself. There was no independent confirmation of the damage.

“A wing of our Preah Vihear Temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment,” the government quoted a Cambodian military commander based near the temple as saying. It did not say how large the wing was.

In their dueling excuses, the Thais and Cambodians sound like stupid white people:

[Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen said the latest fighting “gravely threatened peace and stability in the region.”

“Thai armed forces launched a full-scale armed aggression against Cambodia, using heavy sophisticated weapons including many artillery shells which were fired into the temple of Preah Vihear,” Hun Sen said in a letter that was read aloud on state television shortly before midnight.

Thailand accused Cambodia of firing first Sunday and denied knowledge of damage to Preah Vihear.

“I haven’t received any report about the damage and doubt it is true,” said Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, contacted by telephone from Bangkok. He dismissed reports of damage to the temple as “propaganda,” but said Sunday’s fighting was more intense than the previous two days.

“We have to return fire to wherever the attacks come from,” he said. “The prime minister has told the army to open all communication channels in case the other side wants to talk. Meanwhile, we have to take self-defense and react accordingly.”

You know, Bhadresvara, one of the two mountain manifestations of Shiva to which the temple is dedicated, is a Tantric person. That means people should be fucking up there. Not fighting.

So hey—I know what let’s say we do. Let’s tell both Cambodia and Thailand that Preah Vihear ain’t gonna belong to either of them. We’re going to declare it an international site, like the United Nations intended for Jerusalem, another holy site that allegedly-holy people can’t seem to restrain themselves from transforming into an abattoir. Both nations can send their soldiers off to find some other people to shoot: Preah Vihear will be designated a nutter-free zone. Musicians, like the two fellows below, can pick their way through the landmines to come there to play mountain music. And to those sounds, people can wander off and tantra, in any likely spot, if they so choose.

Well . . . a guy can dream, can’t he? I hear that’s what Gautama did . . . .

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2 Responses to “Border Music”


  1. 1 possum February 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    So long as war continues to be the expression most often chosen to assert power we will continue to see local cultures destroyed. Just as we bombed Iraq back into near Stone Age conditions so will go the rest of the world if we continue to fight one another.

    And the struggle between various religions–don’t even get me started. How may times in human history has religious fervor been the foundation of invasion and murderous intrigue?

    I continue to hope one day humankind will see the light and begin to protect and preserve places like Preah Vihear. Among the only good memories of my trek to SE Asia was the scenery. Magnificant mountain views where the bombing had not struck were awesome to a kid riding a helicopter. The area is beautiful beyond compare to this day where war has not continued.


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