Resistance and Repetition: The Emotional Construction of Preah Vihear Temple Replicas - Resistance and Repetition

Constructive Resistance: Repetitions, Emotions, and Time - Mona Lilja 2021

Resistance and Repetition: The Emotional Construction of Preah Vihear Temple Replicas
Resistance and Repetition

This chapter discusses the potential that the Preah Vihear temple “repeats” have for resisting discursive orders, which have previously legitimated war in the border area between Thailand and Cambodia; in particular, it discusses a replica that was built in 2016 on the Thai side of the border. This replica of the temple is embraced as a repetition of the Preah Vihear temple and the chapter departs from linguistic theorizing of repetition. When discussing the signification of the temple “repeat,” the construction of different replicas will be elaborated on as a form of constructive resistance.

The Preah Vihear temple dates back to the ninth century AD and is composed of a series of sanctuaries that are linked by a system of pavements and staircases, which expose its carved stone ornamentation. Due to its remote location, the temple site is well preserved and is well known for the exceptional quality of its architecture. Although the ancient temple was originally dedicated to Shiva and constructed as a Hindu temple, it later became a Buddhist temple. For over a century, the temple has been the source of a dispute between the two bordering countries of Thailand and Cambodia (UNESCO 2017; Kasetsiri et al. 2013, 23).

In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the Preah Vihear temple as a “World Heritage Site.” This evoked emotional protests on the Thai side of the border and the conflict flared up once again with artillery and gunfire, which killed soldiers on both sides. A consequence of this conflict is that the temple is no longer accessible from the Thai side and a once-thriving tourist trade has now ended.

But efforts have also been made to encourage peace and reconciliation in relation to the intense nationalistic discourses that surround the Preah Vihear temple. One strategy to solve the conflict, on the Thai side, has been to construct replicas of the original temple—at least one of them being located in the area around the Preah Vihear temple. This replica was built in 2016 but was closed only days after it was opened to the public. 2

In this chapter, this and other replicas of the Preah Vihear temple will be discussed as a form of constructive resistance, which challenges and adds to different heritage discourses. The replicas’ appearances and the resistance that they constitute should have the potential to incite “peace-building.” However, instead of contributing to peace, the above-mentioned 2016 replica fueled the conflict between the two countries. Still, the temple “repeat” negotiates various heritage discourses that are associated with the temple.

Repeating in different ways has different impacts and effects. As a repetition, the replica borrows recognizable elements from the “original” through references to it, although in contextual separation from it (cf. Derrida 1976). This creates ambivalence, as the replica challenges the idea of the Preah Vihear temple as being exclusive, irreplaceable, and “one of its kind,” while the “copy” simultaneously confirms and acknowledges the importance of the “original.” In addition, the replica adds to the discourses about the Preah Vihear temple and its heritage, thus changing the meaning that is assigned to it.

This chapter 3 is based on academic texts, as well as reports, that have been written by different governmental and NGOs and actors. Other sources of information include various media websites, blogs, as well as different internet sources. Over and above these sources, we draw on twenty open-ended, semi-structured, in-depth interviews that were carried out in Cambodia in 2012 and 2014 with various civil society actors, journalists, civil servants, politicians, as well as other stakeholders who are associated with the conflict. 4


The Preah Vihear temple was built from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, and it bears elements of various architectural styles that are often described as unique (Hinton 2006; Baaz and Lilja 2017; Lilja and Baaz 2016). The UNESCO inscription document states:

The Temple of Preah Vihear, a unique architectural complex of a series of sanctuaries linked by a system of pavements and staircases on an 800 metre long axis, is an outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture, in terms of plan, decoration and relationship to the spectacular landscape environment. Criterion (i): Preah Vihear is an outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture. It is very “pure” both in plan and in the detail of its decoration.

Authenticity, in terms of the way the buildings and their materials express well the values of the property, has been established. The attributes of the property comprise the temple complex; the integrity of the property has to a degree been compromised by the absence of part of the promontory from the perimeter of the property. (UNESCO WHC 2009)

The above-mentioned Thai and Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear temple can be traced back to a number of agreements between France and Siam (the previous name of Thailand) regarding the border between the two countries. These agreements, however, were contested by Thailand when Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. In an attempt to solve the dispute, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was consulted in 1962. The court ruled that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia (ICJ 1962; Silverman 2010; St John 1994; Baaz and Lilja 2017; Lilja and Baaz 2016). A new ICJ decision that was made in 2013 confirmed the 1962 judgment in addition to clarifying the status of the whole territory surrounding the temple (ICJ 2013; Baaz and Lilja 2017; Lilja and Baaz 2016).

An international report in 2011 stated that the resurgence of the Preah Vihear dispute, in the form of an active armed conflict, was related to domestic Thai politics with the “color-coded” struggle between the pro-establishment “Yellow Shirts” and the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts,” and that the decision of UNESCO to register Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site in July 2008 also contributed to this conflict. The UNESCO decision was used in Thailand by the ultra-nationalist Yellow Shirts as a powerful weapon to further their agenda and destabilize the government (ICG 2011).

The temple conflict is, in line with the above, often associated with the “Bangkok elite” (Logan 2012, 124). In the “border area,” however, “the Khmer on both sides of the border speak a closely related language and share many cultural attributes as well as a history of cross-border migration and trade” (Denes 2012, 170). In this narrative, the conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple and the replica emanates from Bangkok (and Phnom Penh), while the people who live close to the temple, in the border areas, are eager to maintain or accomplish peace. There are also peace-making efforts taking place on the border. One of the respondents talked about peace-generating meetings between Khmer and Thai people at the border:

Yes, we are involved a lot. When there was tension and the governments could not talk to each other, but people, through the NGOs and civil society, people and NGOs together, especially those who worked together, came together at the border, to suggest solutions to the government. (Interview, director and founder of local NGO, Cambodia, 2012)

The reasons mentioned for Thai and Khmer people to live together in peace were the similarities between the nations and the recognition of the interdependence between the bordering countries:

We are a people who are living in the same environment, the same environment means that we are always independent on each other, and especially now there is a reason to integrate, especially Cambodia and Thailand. It is a condition that we have to live together. We suffer from global climate change, AIDS . . . We have to try to use all these problems and make it more happy. (Interview, director and founder of NGO, Cambodia, 2012)

While some sections of the civil society work toward peace, civil society groups from Thailand have boosted the conflict by illegally entering the disputed area in Cambodia and the Preah Vihear temple. For example, on July 15, 2008, some members of a Dharma Yatra, a walking pilgrimage, crossed the Cambodian border in an attempt to reach the disputed area. Acts like these are fueled by strong (Thai and Cambodian) nationalism. One Cambodian respondent argued, “The cause [of the temple conflict], the main cause is two things [sic]: the one is the political incongruences, and second is extreme nationalism” (Interview, civil society representative, Phnom Penh, 2012). Another respondent stated, “My feeling is that this is happening because of the situation in the governments in both countries. They play around on this issue [Preah Vihear temple] to get political benefit, and to provoke nationalism. Sometimes they use the Preah Vihear to increase nationalism” (Interview, executive director for social movement, Phnom Penh, 2012).

However, the Preah Vihear is not only a part of the construction of Cambodian and Thai nationalism but has also increased in value as a venue for global tourism. In the past, Cambodia has had difficulties attracting tourist to the Preah Vihear temple due to conflicts, the country’s precarious situation, and difficulties in launching economic development in the region. Before the Thai—Cambodian conflict escalated, many tourists preferred to travel to Preah Vihear via Thailand because it is more accessible from the Thai side. Now, however, as stated previously, the border is closed. General Chhum Socheat, a spokesman for the National Defense Ministry in Cambodia, told Khmer Times: “We have no expectation to reopen the [Thai] entrance to Preah Vihear (. . .). The decision to reopen depends on the government” (“Thailand Opens,” 2016).

In Thailand, a general donated money to construct a 1:10 scale replica of the temple, which was, as mentioned above, opened in 2016 and then closed and destroyed following concerns aired by the Thai Foreign Ministry about the replica’s effect on relations with Cambodia. The Thai “repeat” is not the first replica of the temple that has been built. According to Khaosod English, another small-scaled imitation can be found in Samut Prakan province (“Thailand Considers,” 2015).


Repetitions of visual images, words, sentences, or, in this case, an artifact depend on both sameness and differences, as well as automaticity, creativity, and variation. The repeat borrows recognizable elements from previous representations (the “original”), through reference to it, although in contextual separation from it. Each time something is repeated, while expressed in a new time/space, its meaning is (slightly) changed. In addition, repeating an artifact first foregrounds and intensifies the part that is repeated. However, it also foregrounds and intensifies the part that is different (Tannen 1987; Derrida 1976; Lilja and Lilja 2018).

Studying the repetition of different artifacts provides us with new understandings of the importance of reiterated material-semiotic signs. Different forms of repetition challenge and/or produce heritage discourses. To investigate signs and the repetitions of these—as means of resistance in cultural processes—requires an exploration of the impact and meaning of different repeats (such as artifacts, sounds, written words, images, musical notes, statements, and body language) (Lilja and Lilja 2018).

Both Judith Butler and Foucault discuss how reiterations, (re)articulations, or repetitions of dominant discourses with a slightly different meaning can be understood as resistance. Foucault speaks about this, among other things, as reversed discourses. The concept of reversed discourses is used to describe how subalterns involve the categories and vocabularies of the dominating force or superior norm, precisely in order to contest them (Butler 1997). Reversed discourses can be seen as a specific form of discursive resistance. According to Foucault, a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and “psychic hermaphrodism” in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature enabled a strong advancement of social controls into the area of “perversity.” This, however, also allowed for the formation of a “reverse” discourse. Suddenly, homosexuality began to resist the discourses by using the same categories by which it was “medically disqualified.” This indicates that there is not a discourse of power, and then another discourse that runs counter to it. Subversive truths are repeated without changing the form of the discourse and by using the same categories, as those who have epistemological authority (Foucault 1990, 101—2). Resistance toward discipline is possible—in a Foucauldian perspective and according to Butler—through reiteration or repetition of the dominant discourse with a different meaning (Butler 1997, 90—95). The fact that meaning can never be fixed becomes a powerful instrument for challenging, changing, or contesting dominant delimiting discourses, even if the effects of such resistance are conditioned on historical and discursive circumstances (Mills 2003; Lilja and Lilja 2018).

In this chapter, the production of a repeat, as a repetition of an “original” temple, is discussed in terms of constructive resistance, which negotiates and adds to different heritage discourses. To label the repetition as an act of resistance is an interpretation of an act that is probably not named “resistance” by those who practice it. Resistance is “not an intrinsic quality of an act but a category of judgement about acts” (Barker 2004, 178).

As we will see in this chapter, repetitions construct knowledge, shake existing cultural boundaries, and open up unanswered questions and complexity. As stated above, it is not always obvious which discourses and norms are being shaken by the repeat or what knowledge is being constructed. There is not always stable knowledge to negotiate; rather, the resistance of the repeats is more of the productive sort, which constructs knowledge rather than merely challenging power relations, decision-making processes, or particular dominant discourses.

Analyzing repeats as resistance means looking at the local Thai administration and militaries’ attempts—in a situation where legal, political, and/or military power have failed to secure the temple—to try to “solve” the situation by way of building a temple replica (see further Baaz et al. 2017). How can the construction of this new artifact be understood as a repetition and as an act of power and/or constructive resistance? The sections below will elaborate on the effects of the Preah Vihear repeats, which seemingly resist discursive orders and ideological frameworks that have previously legitimated war in the border area. Resistance is understood as a reaction against power in a broad sense, which negotiates, recategorizes, and constructs different discourses around the temple.


As stated above, the 2016 Thai replica can be addressed as a repetition of the “original” Preah Vihear temple. Repetition here means the establishment of patterns and a steady return to what has already been stated. Symbols produce extra meaning by resemblance—something is similar to something else, or, in other words, repeated. For example, when there is a green apple and a red apple, the red one repeats the existence of the green one with the help of their mutual similarity, while still being a different color. In the same way, the Thai replica can be seen as a “repeat” due to its resemblance to the “original” (Lilja and Lilja 2018).

Repetitions in discourses of heritage are often addressed in terms of “fake,” “originals,” “replicas,” and “authenticity.” At the same time, the borders between these concepts are highly ambivalent. There is an ambiguity when defining originals and separating them from replicas, thereby demonstrating/performing the discrepancies between the real and the “fake” (Miura 2015).

Often the “originals” are not “pure” but “contaminated” or “hybridized” with the “non-authentic.” When “original” temples are damaged, one may find either empty spaces or replicas. Temples are often partially original with new parts added in order to make up for the missing elements. In addition, some replicas are so well made that even experienced “experts” or traders may be unable to easily distinguish the “authentic” from the inauthentic (Miura 2015, 270—71).

The Management Guidelines for World Cultural Heritage Sites, by Bernard M. Feilden and Jukka Jokilehto (1993), provides one of the most detailed explanations of authenticity and stresses that the historic fabric must be maintained, “avoiding replacement of even the oldest structures so far as these form the historical continuity of the area” (Feilden and Jokilehto 1993, 67; see also Labadi 2010). In addition, the text argues that it is important to “respect historic material, to distinguish new material from historic so as not to fake or to mislead the observer” (Feilden and Jokilehto 1993, 67). The embracing of principles of “minimum intervention” is in conformity with the vision of the World Heritage Convention (1972), which aims to preserve sites for the benefits of future generations.

Lately, this school of thought, which stresses the importance of historic materials, has been increasingly questioned. According to Labadi (2010), the understandings of an “authenticity of materials” “do not take into account non-European approaches that do not consider the authenticity of a property as lying essentially in its original materials” (Labadi (2010, 70). In line with this, another view of the authentic was promoted during a conference arranged by the World Heritage Committee on authenticity at its sixteenth session in 1992 in Nara, Japan. During the conference, it was recognized and acknowledged that most historic buildings are altered by people’s day-to-day use and the additional wear and tear caused by nature, and that these changes are part of their historic stratification. From this perspective, processual and long-term changes contribute to the value of historical buildings and monuments (Labadi 2010).

The Nara Document, mentioned above, also pinpoints that the authenticity of a site is rooted in specific sociocultural contexts and can be understood and judged only in accordance with values/norms that circulate in these specific venues (Articles 11 and 12). What is considered authentic changes over time “even within the same culture” (Labadi 2010). This indicates that the protection of the material dimension of cultural heritage has been overemphasized in previous discussions (Labadi 2010).

Keiko Miura (2015) uses the terms “replica,” “copy,” and “reproduction” interchangeably to mean objects that are not considered to be “original” or “authentic” in an artistic historical sense (Miura 2015, 270). In this chapter, however, replicas are not considered to be fakes, but rather repetitions of previous repeats—in this case, the Preah Vihear temple. It is argued that the Preah Vihear temple could also be seen as a repeat of other temples that were built before its construction. These temples are, generally, all built from a notion of Khmer architecture. One of our respondents, for example, stated:

Personally, I think that the (Preah Vihear) temple is where the worship is taking place, it refers to a religious place for the people to worship the religion that belong to them. I would just like to add to your question, it (the Preah Vihear temple) has to do with the identity of the Khmer people. These temples also indicate the Khmer architecture, so first one is identity and the second one is the “spirit”, a kind of spiritual value that inspire Khmer people to claim their own country. So, if they lose the temple, it means that they lose their own identity. (Interview, civil society representative, Phnom Penh, 2012)

This quote, among other things, indicates that the Preah Vihear temple is built from previous notions about Khmer architecture, thereby repeating an already expressed design. In addition, the Preah Vihear temple can be seen as a sign that “stands for” and maintains the concept of “temples.” Thereby, the Preah Vihear temple is an example of material performativity, and maintains various semiotic constructions around “temples.” There would be no category of “temples” that exists independently of particular temples. Thus, while being general, the universal concept of “temples” is “incommensurable with any particularity (it) yet cannot exist apart from the particular” (Laclau 1995, 90).


From a historical perspective, in the course of time, the Preah Vihear temple has undergone a series of transformations in regard to its function and meaning. Different actors have assigned different significances to the monumental remains—among them Hindus (at an early stage when it was a Hindu temple), Buddhists, art-loving European travelers, colonial administrators, national elites, locals, and politicians on behalf of the changing governments of Cambodia and Thailand. As the Preah Vihear temple was listed as a “World Heritage Site of Humanity” by UNESCO, the distinction of the sacred site of the temple as a “World Heritage Site” meant “disembedding it from certain social contexts of culture and re-embedding it in new, global contexts, those of a global tourist economy” (Hauser-Schäublin 2011, 52). The site of the Preah Vihear temple has turned into a “global cultural commons” where there is an asymmetry between those who produce cultural assets and the “humanity to which those assets come to belong as world heritage gives to this commons its paradoxical character” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2006, 162). A more secular meaning of the site was added to the previous meanings. In this process, the locality of the temple emerges as a tourist destination with new owners (Hauser-Schäublin 2011, 33—55; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998, 151).

As a material artifact, the temple has also changed given that the French and Thais have stripped it of its valuables and left only the monumental stones, which are too heavy to remove. During the colonial period, different historical sites in Cambodia were robbed of their treasures and only left with what was not movable. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin (2011) has written about the transformation of heritage under the colonial period:

The Europeans felt free to do what they liked with the “antiquities” for which no legitimate owners were anticipated to exist. This is especially true of removing reliefs and statues or parts of them in their thousands, either by sending them to museums or selling them on the art market (. . .), apparently without the slightest remorse (. . .). Nevertheless, the local population did not passively endure their domination, the appropriation of their sacred sites and the hauling away of their consecrated heirlooms (. . .). The inhabitants of Siem Reap wrote a letter to their king in 1949, only a couple of years before Cambodia reached independence. In this letter, they deplored the fact that over the past 50 or 60 years Angkor had been depleted of all its treasures: statues made of precious stones, wood, stone, or silver. (Hauser-Schäublin 2011, 46)

In addition to the changes during the colonial period, recent disturbances and fighting have left bullet holes in the temple’s stones. Thus, the temple as a material-symbolic artifact has changed over time where the present temple building, in one sense, is a copy of the original temple. From a temporal point of view, an object will, by natural deterioration and with passing of time, change. The object will, thus, never be self-identical more than at the very moment when first identified as the object (Landzelius 2001, 143). Eco stated, in regard to this, that “since any material is subject to physical and chemical alterations, from the moment of its production, ever object should be seen as an instant forgery of itself” (Eco 1991, 245; Landzelius 2001, 143).

As stated above, the Preah Vihear temple has also been copied by the production of several “repeats.” Repetitions are a part of the social aspect. Repetition functions in production, comprehension, connection, and interaction. As “repeats,” the Thai replicas (re)produce the temple slightly differently, in relation to previous discourses, “owners” and the “original” (Tannen 1987).

The border replica that was opened in 2016 is an approximate repetition, but still part of an ongoing reinvention of the discourses of heritage and national identities. The temple repetition is constructive given that the “repeat” reinforces, emphasizes, confirms, and (re)creates the meaning assigned to the Preah Vihear temple.

Repeating in different ways has different impacts and effects. For example, almost paradoxically, the repeat in the case of the temple replica first foregrounds and intensifies the part that is repeated, then foregrounds and intensifies the part that is different: “By focusing on parallelisms and similarities in pairs of lines, one is led to pay more attention to every similarity and every difference” (Jakobson Pomorska 1983, 103). Thus, while viewing the Thai replica, the similarities are intensified by the dissimilarities. On the other hand, the differences are also foregrounded by the similarities to the “original.”

The repetition of the Thai replica also confirms (once again) the importance of the Preah Vihear temple. Repetitions have a persuasive effect. They link one speaker’s ideas to another’s and ratify previous ideas. In addition, the repetition that the replica produces not only ties the “fake” to the discourse around the Preah Vihear, but also ties the temple’s stakeholders (prayers, tourists, the military, politicians, etc.) to the different artifacts and to the heritage discourse (Tannen 1987). Thereby, the meaning assigned to, and the discourse around, the Preah Vihear temple has transformed with the construction of a replica.

The repetition of the temple should be seen as a result of understandings and interpretations that are entangled with emotions (cf. Hemmings 2005, 2014). Among others, the armed conflict that arose immediately after the UNESCO listing of the Preah Vihear temple shows how the official recognition of the ruins by one of the most important international organizations, which aims to promote education, culture, cooperation, and peace, was an intense message that touched upon national feelings and sensitivities (Hauser-Schäublin 2011). By calling it a new name, a “World Heritage Site,” the (slightly different) repetition of the temple discourse created a series of emotional reactions. In the material-semiotic situation of listing the temple, the material artifact, non-present authorities, the circulation of discourses, negotiated national identities, feelings of failure, or a sense of losing of one’s identity or land all entangle in and shape different emotions. Thus, as the status of the temple changed, emotions arose from the (re)repetitions of material signs, negotiated expectations, slightly transformed discourses, and different (hidden) power relations. One UNESCO employee confirmed the outbreak of emotions, but still did not question its listing. He said, “I would not see that this temple would be denied its universal value simple because there are emotions on both sides of the border” (Interview, UNESCO employee, Phnom Penh, 2012).

Repetitions also function on an interactional level by accomplishing social goals. In this case, the temple “repeat” can be understood as resistance against the very idea of one, single “original” temple.

Repeating is a way of sending certain meanings around a topic to the receiver of the message, which might contribute to establish certain discourses. Repeating the temple suggests that it is not one unique temple that is impossible to replace, but a pattern of related artifacts that draw on the same discourse. The replica signifies richness and manifoldness, and a possibility to supplant anything that use to be seen as “exclusive” and “irreplaceable.” The repetition of the Preah Vihear temple, by way of producing a similar artifact, can be seen as a constructive resistance practice that opposes power-loaded, dominant discourses around heritage, “authenticity of materials” and ownership. While currently being negotiated by, for example, the Nara Document, these discourses are still highly prevalent, partly due to the temple’s listing as a “World Heritage Site of Humanity” by UNESCO but also among the general public in different sites.

The resistance practice of constructing a “repeat,” which appears to reject the idea of an “original,” could be seen as peace-building. Leaving the Preah Vihear temple to the Cambodians, while the Thais get a temple of their own, seems to be a more peaceful strategy than using military means to conquer the prevailing temple. This has been acknowledged by different actors; for example, one journalist wrote, “Those fighting over sacred sites elsewhere in the world should take note of this innovative solution (to solve the temple conflict)” (“Thailand Considers,” 2015). Thai officials also emphasized the replica as a Thai—Khmer gain, saying that, “If we build a new tourist destination, tourists will want to learn about history and culture of Thailand and Cambodia” (“Thailand Considers,” 2015).

However, instead of contributing to peace, the replica seems to have fueled the conflict between the two countries. The replica took five months to complete and it was Thailand’s 6th Infantry Regiment that was ordered to construct the replica. Still, as mentioned above, it was closed only days after it had been opened (“Thailand Considers,” 2015). The reason for closing the replica, was due to the concerns that it would affect Thai—Cambodia relations. Ta bort Kong Puthikar, the former director general of the Preah Vihear National Authority, said that the replica was a reminder of the tensions between the two countries over the ownership of the temple. He said, “I think that the Thai side should not have done it because it would not benefit further enhancement or cooperation between both countries at all” (“Preah Vihear,” 2016). The construction of a replica seemingly threatened the idea of the Preah Vihear temple as an outstanding, original Khmer asset. An official at the Ministry of Defense in Cambodia described his view of the temple: “(for me) personally it’s a part of our national integrity, a story of greatness.”

Cambodia has previously been protective not only of its temples, but also of their design. The construction of a full-scale replica of Angkor Wat in India was suspended in 2015 at the Cambodian government’s request. The former director general of the Preah Vihear National Authority, But Kong Puthikar, said in an interview that he, however, doubted that the miniature replica of the Preah Vihear temple complex would cause an intellectual property dispute in the same way as the one over the Angor Wat replica (“Preah Vihear,” 2016). Thus, there seem to be different views in regard to whether or not the similarities of the approximate repetition of the replica were great enough to be provocative for the Cambodians. The repeat borrowed some recognizable elements from the “original,” but because it was undersized as well as located in a contextually different site it seemingly had an ambivalent appearance—being a copy, but not a real copy of the temple.

The above indicates how the temple “repeat” has been valued in relation to the “original” temple. How the similarities and differences between the “original” Preah Vihear have been judged depends on the stakeholders and/or the users of the temples. The latter decides what characteristics are to be taken into account in determining whether or not two objects are interchangeable. Or, as Eco writes in relation to doubles and who is to judge the criteria for similarity and sameness:

The problem of doubles seems to be an ontological one but, rather, is a pragmatic one. It is the user who decides the “description” under which, according to a given practical purpose, certain characteristics are to be taken into account in determining whether two objects are “objectively” similar and consequently inter-changeable. (Eco 1991, 178)

If the Preah Vihear temple replica had remained, it would have probably attracted some of the lucrative tourists in the area, which might have lessened the tourist profit of the Cambodian government. The qualities that give the Preah Vihear temple its value—for example, its long history—are no longer seen as crucial qualities that are impossible to replace. Instead, it is a temple made of stones and it can be repeated as an artifact that is made of stone. The vast amount of money invested in a copy signifies the value of such a copy. The repeat, as Judith Butler suggests, serves as the site for possible contestation. It is precisely the fact that the temple is repeated and (re)performed that opens up for a transformation of current heritage discourses. Every interval of repetition offers a place to locate and investigate change (Butler 1988, 1990/1999, 178—79; Lilja 2016). The transformation of the discourses should, as I suggest above, be seen as a constructive form of resistance.

As stated above, the replica’s potential to “replace” the original Preah Vihear temple is probably in part due to its various functions and how the replicas could fill these functions. Could a “fake” meet the needs of religious prayers, the demand made from the standpoint of Thai nationalism and/or global “World Heritage” tourism? In Cambodia many repetitions of holy objects—replicas—are as sacred as the “original.” Monuments and statues are seen as being the home of powerful spirits. Selective statues are the objects of worship for local people who pray for protection, welfare, and healing. For them, “the distinction between ’originals’ and ’replicas’ of ancient statues is of little relevance” (Miura 2015, 288). Thus, “repeats” often become artifacts of worship in the region. This has also been acknowledged by Maurizion Peleggi (2012), who displays how, in the Buddhist world, spirituality is experienced through materiality. Peleggi argues that a doctrinal insistence on impermanence has not lessened the importance of objects, nevertheless de-emphasized authenticity. The copy, in this context, is seen as important as, what is often considered, the original.

Also, global, heritage tourism might find a replica interesting. Kalyanee Thamjaree of the governor’s office in Si Sa Ket province, for example, stated:

It (the temple) will draw many tourists to visit (. . .) because tourism business owners in Bangkok are saying many tourists want to see Preah Vihear (. . .) So I want this project to be built quickly, so that people around Preah Vihear Temple will be able to sell souvenirs to tourists. (“Thailand Considers,” 2015)

Overall, as Alexandra Denes (2012, 169) states, “Cultural heritage is an invaluable economic asset and potential source of autonomy for communities.”

The above indicates that the repeat that the replica constitutes could come to signify not only a religious value but also attract interest from the heritage tourists, thus, to some degree, filling some of the gaps that the lack of access to the original creates. The material-semiotic nature of the heritage, and the interconnectedness of matter and discourse, thereby simultaneously open up a multitude of functions.


This chapter elaborates the significance of the replicas of the Preah Vihear temple. The replicas are discussed in terms of “repeats” and as a form of resistance against some core ideas of the heritage discourse.

The current Preah Vihear temple in itself could be seen as a repetition of previous temples and of itself. In addition, the Preah Vihear border replica is both a copy of and, simultaneously, a reinvention of earlier material representations. The replica means the establishment of patterns and a return to what is already displayed by the original temple. The repeated temple—the copy—is an acknowledgment, reenactment, and a re-experiencing of a set of meanings and designs that have already been established. The repetition, the Preah Vihear temple replica, gains meaning through processes that involve the recognition of both similarities and differences.

The replica has added to the heritage discourse about the temple as well as challenged the ambition of Cambodian decision-makers to have exclusive rights to the Preah Vihear temple. The temple “repeat” could be seen as resistance against the very idea of one, single “original” temple. Repeating the Preah Vihear temple suggests that it is not unique, exclusive, and/or irreplaceable. Thereby the replica, as a repeat, has shaken different relations of power and informs the current world views as well as our emerging realities. Adding to and wrenching the discourses around the temple could be seen as a constructive form of resistance.

The resistance practice of constructing a “repeat,” in which the appearance rejects the idea of the “original,” could also be seen as peace-building. Leaving the Preah Vihear temple to the Cambodians while getting a new temple suggests a peaceful strategy that could replace the military conflict over the Preah Vihear temple. However, instead of contributing to peace, the replica seemingly fueled the conflict between the two countries. Apparently, the similarities between the “original” and “fake” are so great that, at least some, Cambodians feel threatened by the replica.

The replica’s possibility of replacing the original is partly dependent upon the Preah Vihear temple’s various functions and how the replicas could fill these functions. This chapter concludes that a temple replica could possibly come to signify religious value as well as attracting interest from heritage tourists, thus, in some senses ”replacing” the “original” temple.

The “fake” was constructed as a response toward different relations, which could be read in terms of power (domestic Thai politics, the Thai—Cambodian [power] relations and UNESCO’s listing of the Preah Vihear temple), while undermining and/or provoking Cambodian decision-makers and dominant heritage discourses. This kind of resistance is parasitic on power and seemingly nourishes as well as undermines it. One question that remains, however, is if the construction of a replica can be viewed as resistance that is carried out by subordinated locals (local administration and a few persons of the military establishment) on the border area or should it be viewed as a power-strategy by a more powerful neighboring nation?


1. This chapter is a revised version of an earlier paper written and published with Mikael Baaz. I would like to thank him for letting me (re)publish it: M. Lilja and M. Baaz. 2019. “Heritage Temples, Replicas and Repetitions: Theorizing the Significance of Repeats as Resistance.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 32: 323—36.

The Thai name for the temple site is Phra Wiharn. Preah Vihear is the Cambodian name. Both terms derive from Sanskrit (Hauser-Schäublin 2011, 33—55).

2. I would like to thank Katrina Gaber, who directed my attention to the replica and provided us with great comments and inspiration. In addition, I want to thank Niclas Lantz for his valuable input to the project.

3. The two broader research projects that this chapter is based on focus on resistance, the Preah Vihear temple, and the peace-building potential of heritage site, and are as follows: (1) The Swedish Research Council, project number 2011-6721 Mona Lilja (project leader), A Paradoxical Conflict over World Heritage at the Border between Cambodia and Thailand—Civil Society Resistance and The Preah Vihear Temple; and (2) The Swedish Research Council, Michael Landzelius (project leader), Reconciliatory Heritage—Reconstructing Heritage in a Time of Violent Fragmentations, project number: 2016-03212.

4. The identities of the respondents will not be revealed for ethical reasons and to ensure their safety.


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