It is a rather sad story for Preah Vihear temple, an 11th century jewel of Angkor architecture, which unfortunately lies on the tip of a promontory just on the border line between Cambodia and Thailand. For decades, the temple has been the witness of a war of words, skirmishes, and even sporadic fights between Cambodian and Thai troops due to territorial claims. Preah Vihear has belonged to Cambodia since 1907, a decision which was confirmed by an international judgment in 1962. Two years ago, Preah Vihear was finally listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This week, the meeting of the World Heritage Commission in Brasilia was supposed to endorse Cambodia’s management plans for the temple area. But Thailand voiced its strong concern, threatening to withdraw from the Heritage Committee as it complained not to have been consulted.
According to Sue Williams, UNESCO spokesperson, Preah Vihear Temple is listed as a Cambodian World Heritage property and is, therefore, administered by Cambodia. But to complicate things, parts of the temple’s surrounding and access are on Thai territory. Both Cambodia and Thailand claim a 4.2 km² buffer zone under their sovereignty. Thailand discovered that Preah Vihear management, as presented by Cambodia, would have integrated one km² belonging to the contested buffer area.
UNESCO has been greatly embarrassed by this battle, which seems to belong to another age. “The problem concerns a contested border between the two countries. This is not an issue that UNESCO or the World heritage Committee can do anything about. It must be solved by the two countries concerned,” indicated Mrs. Williams. Thailand’s threat to leave would have a devastating impact for the credibility of the organization. However, Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva remained firm on the issue and indicated that Thailand would not back any management plan for the area as long as a demarcation line between both countries has not been acknowledged.
Meanwhile, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee made the decision to make no decision! The management plan’s approval for Preah Vihear will be effectively postponed by one year until the World Heritage Committee meets again next year in Bahrain. According to director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, the first concern of the World Heritage Committee is to protect and promote mankind heritage, and this with full respect and without prejudice to the sovereignty of member states or to any territorial claims. “Protecting and enhancing our natural and cultural heritage means building peace, respect, and solidarity, which lies at the heart of UNESCO’s mission. It is our common responsibility to makes these sites emblems of peace, dialogue, and reconciliation,” she said.
Meanwhile, the tragedy is more for Preah Vihear temple itself. It has been closed to the public for a year now due to safety concerns. And instead of being celebrated as a proud testimony of Hinduism heritage by both kingdoms of Cambodia and Thailand, emphasizing together their common history and helping to a better understanding, it has been turned into an object of argument and even into a battle area for the sake of their own private agendas of both Cambodian and Thai politicians.