POLITICS: Temple Row Sours Thai-Cambodian Ties - Again

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Inter Press Service

By Friday, Bangkok and Phnom Penh were both claiming victory following a decision by the U.N.-backed World Heritage Committee (WHC) to postpone till next year a decision about a management plan for the temple, a world heritage site listed by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Cambodia had an edge going into this week’s WHC’s meeting in Brasilia. After all, the much poorer and less powerful South-east Asian nation had succeeded in getting the committee to recognise Preah Vihear as one of its own UNESCO heritage sites at a 2008 meeting in Quebec.

That decision in the Canadian city enraged nationalists in the more affluent and more powerful Thailand. Nationalist groups rallied near the temple, chanting inflammatory slogans and accusing Cambodia of having 'stolen' the temple from Thailand.

This wave of Thai hysteria, which drove both countries to increase their troop strength along the border to a dangerous level, sought to stamp out history that stood in Cambodia’s favour. In 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ruled that Preah Vihear was within Cambodian territory, a ruling that was not challenged by Thailand, then under a military dictatorship.

But what the court in The Hague did not resolve was a 4.6 square-kilometre stretch of overlapping territory near Preah Vihear, making it a flashpoint along the disputed 800-km border the two kingdoms share. In fact, Thailand and Cambodia use different maps to demarcate their respective borders.

Fearing that a Cambodian plan to manage Preah Vihear may lead to a loss of Thai territory, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva instructed its team at the WHC meeting, which included three ranking military officers, to challenge Phnom Penh’s management plan even to the point of Thailand threatening to quit the committee.

Thai anger was also reflected in protests staged outside the UNESCO office in Bangkok, prompting a letter of concern by Irina Bokova, the U.N. body’s director general, who called for 'dialogue in safeguarding the Temple of Preah Vihear.'

'Protecting and enhancing our natural and cultural heritage, means building the peace, respect and solidarity which lies at the heart of UNESCO’s mission,' Bokova added. 'It is our common responsibility to make these sites emblems of peace, dialogue and reconciliation.'

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya upped the ante with a stern letter to the WHC saying that Bangkok would not cooperate with any plans approved at the Brasilia meeting. 'As long as the demarcation (of the border) has not been finished, Thailand cannot cooperate with any decision by the WHC,' Kasit argued in his letter. 'The WHC has also neglected the fact that the management plan for the Preah Vihear temple cannot achieve concrete results and be a success because it has ignored the Thai role in helping preserve the temple.'

But Kasit’s Cambodian counterpart dismissed attempts by Thai protesters to reverse the world heritage listing of the Preah Vihear temple under Cambodia. 'The enlistment of Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage site is already done,' Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was quoted as saying by the ‘Phnom Penh Post’. 'Whatever Thailand is doing cannot be changed.'

Chea Dara, deputy commander of Cambodia’s armed forces in Preah Vihear, offered a more ominous warning to Thai nationalists threatening to 'invade' Cambodia. 'Thai extremists should stop bothering Cambodia, because we will not welcome them,' he was quoted in the ‘Post’. 'We will welcome them with guns.'

This brings to mind the past clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops assigned to protect their borders near the temple. In April 2009, an encounter between Thai and Cambodian troops there left three people dead.

'We cannot ask the WHC to delist the temple as a world heritage site,' said Puangthong Pawakapan, an assistant professor in international relations at Chulalongkorn University here. 'That decision will worsen the relationship.'

'To solve the territorial dispute, both side haves to be sensitive to each other’s concerns,' she told IPS. 'There has to be a give and take.'

But Thailand’s deeply divided political environment after two bloody crackdowns in recent months complicates this border dispute, she revealed. 'As long as Thai politics cannot find unity, the Thai-Cambodian issue will not be resolved. The relationship will go up and down.'

The current spike in tensions over Preah Vihear exposes a broader fault line that has married Thai-Cambodian ties in the past year. In November 2009, both countries recalled their respective ambassadors after Bangkok protested Phnom Penh’s appointment of fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic advisor to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The same month saw the Thai government revoke an agreement with Cambodia to develop overlapping areas in the Gulf of Thailand rich in oil and gas.

That tense chapter came six years after a wave of nationalist hysteria in Phnom Penh saw protesters burn down the Thai embassy. The Cambodians had been angered by a Thai actress’ statement that allegedly questioned Cambodia’s ownership of the historic Angkor Wat complex. Thaksin was the Thai premier then.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service