Unesco special envoy Koichiro Matsuura arrived in Phnom Penh yesterday for a three-day visit to help protect Preah Vihear temple from any future fighting between Thailand and Cambodia and to calm recently flared tensions.
The 11th-century temple and World Heritage Site appeared visibly scarred after four days of deadly fighting that broke out along a disputed borderline on Feb 4.
Unesco Director General Irina Bokova appointed her predecessor the UN heritage body’s special envoy to the issue with a mandate to visit Bangkok and Phnom Penh, but not the temple itself.
At a meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Jakarta on Tuesday, Cambodia and Thailand agreed to host Indonesian observers at the border to monitor an unofficial cease-fire.
Sue Williams, a spokesperson at Unesco’s Paris headquarters, denied news reports that Mr Matsuura would visit the temple and said such a trip would exceed the bounds of his mission.
“That is not true,” she said. “That’s not within his mandate.”
Unesco has announced plans to send a separate team to the temple to assess the damage. But Ms Williams said the team would not arrive “until the…area is deemed secure.”
Chuch Phoeun, chairman of the National Authority for Preah Vihear and deputy director general of the government’s National Commission for Unesco, claimed yesterday that up to 80 percent of the temple’s surface had been scarred by Thai fire in the recent fighting, but did not explain how he had measured the damage.
“It is serious damage,” he said. “My evaluation is that about 70 to 80 percent of the temple was damaged. Even though the wing of the temple did not collapse, 414 bullets or other ammunition were dropped on the temple. Some were dropped on the temple, some of it was hit by shrapnel, and some was hit by cluster munitions.”
Mr Phoeun said he hoped Unesco would dig into its “rescue” funds to help repair the damage, as when it donated $50,000 to the government to rebuild a nearby market burned down in fighting in 2008.
But like Unesco, he said the envoy would not be visiting the temple on this trip.
“This time he will not go to Preah Vihear temple,” he said. “It is postponed for two weeks to wait for the arrival of the observers from Indonesia.”
Mr Matsuura, however, left the door open for a visit. Though it is not on his prepared itinerary, he said while being shuffled out of the airport past reporters: “perhaps on Tuesday.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the envoy would be meeting separately with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cabinet Minister Sok An today.
Mr Matsuura arrived in Cambodia from Bangkok. According to Thai newspaper The Nation, Bangkok pressed the envoy on its wish Unesco delay Cambodia’s management plan for the temple when it comes up for consideration in June. Mr Matsuura reportedly said Unesco had yet to decide on its request.
In related news, RCAF deputy commander General Chea Dara, in command of troops at the border, said a military attache from the Indonesian Embassy had visited the site on Saturday, but he declined to comment further.
A spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry in Jakarta said the visit was in preparation for observers his country would be sending.
“Embassy personnel went to the border to seek some information,” said the spokesman, referring further questions to the embassy. At the embassy, Second Secretary Bernard Sinaga said he had no knowledge of a visit to the border by Indonesian officials.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the Indonesians were a “pre-advance team” sent to collect statistics in the area, though he did not elaborate.
He said an arrival date for the observers had not yet been set.