By Mark Worley
When Unesco World Heritage Committee President Juca Ferreira declared a “great victory” after a sideline meeting between Cambodia and Thailand at the committee’s annual meeting in Brazil last Thursday, he may have spoken too soon.
The “compromise draft decision” on Preah Vihear temple signed during the meeting, Mr Ferreira claimed at the time, was “fundamental for a dialogue to be established” between the two nations.
Since the signing of the draft decision, however, both sides have provided completely opposing views about its meaning.
In a statement Monday, the Cambodian government claimed that by signing the draft decision–which “recalled” decisions made at the past three committee meetings and “noted” that Cambodia had submitted its temple management plan and other documents–Thailand had relented and now officially recognized those documents and decisions.
For its part, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement rejecting this assertion. “Thailand’s concurrence with the Decision is based on the understanding that it is without prejudice to Thailand’s boundary claims, and that any document relating to the inscription of the Temple of Phra Viharn on the World Heritage List does not bind Thailand under international law,” it said, using the Thai name for the temple.
As for Mr Ferreira’s hopes for dialogue between the two countries, the Cambodian government yesterday shut down any chance of a bilateral discussion about the conservation of the temple, saying it would only be willing to talk to Thailand through official “mechanisms” about the disputed border territory.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the cultural issues regarding the temple had already been discussed between the two countries, but that Cambodia would encourage Thailand to “come back to the table” to discuss border issues through the Joint Border Commission.
The possibility of reaching any compromise appears to have been hampered by Thai officials who appeared in media reports stating that they had provided the committee with evidence that prevented Cambodia from having its temple management plan considered at this year’s meeting. The reports were vehemently denied by Cambodian officials.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at the Asean Studies Centre in Singapore, said by e-mail yesterday that he believed the Thai government’s strong focus on the World Heritage Committee meeting in Brazil was a political ploy aimed at appealing to nationalists.
“The Thai government made sure that its non-compromise standpoint would allow itself to gain political points,” Mr Pavin said. “The issue once again is played up to serve a certain interests of Thai political factions…. It is a part of employing irrational nationalism.”
Mr Pavin added that he believed the issue was primarily to do with the land surrounding the temple, not the temple itself. “So far the Thai public believes that Cambodia has this intention of ‘eating up’ some of this adjacent land,” he said.
Mr Siphan said yesterday that Cambodia’s temple management plan did not concern any Thai land. “Cambodia won’t take one square inch of land off Thailand to conserve the temple,” he said.
Unesco spokeswoman Sue Williams said in an e-mail from Brazil yesterday that “the World Heritage Committee has no mandate concerning issues of national sovereignty over land.”
“The Committee will provide recommendations aimed at strengthening the protection of the property so as to maintain the outstanding universal value for which it was inscribed on the World Heritage List,” she said, adding that the committee’s would not discuss the plan until its next meeting in Bahrain in 2011.
For the second day in a row yesterday, officials from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to speak to a reporter and failed to answer questions redirected to them by the office of Thai government spokesman Panitan Watanayagorn.
And the divide between the two nations over the temple may have increased late last night after the Thai government’s public relations department issued a statement saying Thailand planned to compete head-to-head with Cambodia in a bid to host the 2012 World Heritage Committee meeting.
The statement also said that the Thai Cabinet had made a resolution to “set up a committee for gathering information and to arrange the proposition in order to express the country’s stance against Cambodia’s Preah Vihear temple administrative plan.”
While the latest dispute between Cambodia and Thailand has largely played out in the media, a military official based at Preah Vihear temple said yesterday that there had also been a minor disagreement between the two forces at the border.
Major General Srey Dek, commander of RCAF division 3, said that his opposing Thai military leader had on Monday requested that Cambodian troops remove their bunkers at Veal Entry, near Preah Vihear temple.
“Yes, he came and told me to remove the bunkers,” Maj Gen Dek said, adding that he had refused to do so. He estimated that there were about 6,000 Thai troops still stationed at the border, roughly 2,000 more than usual.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Cambodia was not worried about the bolstered Thai troop presence. “This is the same thing that Thailand always does,” he said.
“They can deploy their troops as much as they want as long as it is in their land. Cambodian troops are ready to protect our land.”