The possibility of the World Heritage Committee reviewing the status of Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site appears slim given the heavy workload at the Unesco-affiliated committee’s meeting this week in Spain and the rules governing the group’s procedures, an Unesco official said Wednesday.
Thailand has raised Cambodia’s ire in recent days by saying it would ask the World Heritage Committee meeting in Spain to grant joint Thai-Cambodian management of the iconic Khmer temple. Last year, the committee granted World Heritage status to the temple at the request of the Cambodian government, a move that provoked a nationalist backlash in Bangkok where the temple became a key issue in Thailand’s turbulent domestic politics.
Chief of Unesco’s East Asia and Pacific Unit Giovanni Boccardi said that Preah Vihear has not yet come up at the meeting in Seville and might very well not become a topic of discussion at all.
“If the case of Preah Vihear is not among those to be discussed, ie it is decided that it will not be debated, then there will be no opportunities for anyone to make any intervention on the subject. In this case, the Committee will adopt the draft decision contained in their working document as is,” Mr Boccardi wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.
“If Preah Vihear is open for discussion, then Thailand [as well as Cambodia] would be able to request to speak…. It should be also noted that only members of the Committee may propose a change in the draft decision,” he added.
He said the Committee is also examining 176 reports on the state of conservation of heritage properties around the world, which would prevent the question of Preah Vihear from being broached.
The Thai premier last week said the cliff-top temple should be registered with the World Heritage site under the joint supervision of Thailand and Cambodia. According to Thai media accounts, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the country would make the request during the Committee’s meeting this week.
His remarks triggered the Cambodian government to reaffirm its authority over the temple and its willingness to defend the site militarily if necessary.
Thai Embassy officials in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Rath Sophea, director of the Preah Vihear provincial information department, said authorities have boosted security near the temple since the most recent diplomatic flare-up. He said officials are cracking down on soldiers who leave the encampments with their weapons as well as vendors trying to bring and sell alcohol to the stationed soldiers.
“Because of the security situation, the authorities have to check all the trucks or vans driving on the way to the temple,” he said Wednesday, adding that civilians and journalists are still allowed to travel to the site.
On Monday, Mr Abhisit announced that he will send his right hand man, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Taugsuban, to Phnom Penh on Saturday in a bid to calm rising tensions.
“I will explain to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that we have problems with Unesco, not with Cambodia,” Mr Suthep told reporters on Tuesday in Bangkok.
“From my personal acquaintance with him, Hun Sen does not want Cambodia and Thailand to have trouble with each other,” Mr Suthep said.
Cambodian government officials said on Tuesday that they did not have official confirmation of the Thai deputy prime minister’s visit.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Mr Abhisit blamed the border tensions on Unesco for “trying to register and manage the area when the process of demarcation hasn’t been completed.”
“Since they have been active in this, we have casualties, we have tensions, and tourists can’t go there any more. That defeats the whole purpose of World Heritage, restoring the heritage for local people, for tourists,” Abhisit said.
The International Court of Justice in 1962 ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia, but the ruling did not determine the ownership of 4.6 sq km of land next to the temple, which Thailand now claims as its own, and which it appears to be using as leverage to gain joint listing of the site.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)