Repair, restoration? Thailand withdraws from World Heritage Convention

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BANGKOK (eTN) – The issue around territories surrounding Preah Vihear temple, a magnificent ancient structure from the 11th-12th century, located just on the demarcation line between Thailand and Cambodia, finally found an abrupt end on Saturday evening in Paris. Both Cambodia and Thailand have been opposed over the temple’s management since the monument has been inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008. The temple is on Cambodian territory but some of its access and a 4.6 km² parcel of land surrounding the temple’s compound are effectively located in Thailand. Since October 2008, regular clashes occurred between Cambodian and Thai military troops, with the most serious fighting taking place in February 2011. Some 28 people died during the conflict earlier this year.

Although a common Cambodian-Thai management would have been the most reasonable solution for the temple, attracting many tourists to the area, national agendas on both sides stirred up nationalist feelings. The approval by the World Heritage Convention secretariat of Cambodia’s management plan prompted Thailand’s reaction. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti announced to Thai media in Paris to withdraw from the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. “They did not care about our sovereignty and territory,” reported Thai newspapers citing Suwit Khunkitti’s reaction.

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Most ridiculous is, however, the official reason for withdrawing: according to the Bangkok Post, the WHC’s draft was in line with Thailand’s own draft on Cambodia’s Preah Vihear management plan, but it contains two sensitive words “restoration” and “repair.” According to the newspaper, Thailand fears that both words would threaten “Thai sovereignty,” as such works would require to be conducted temporarily on the Thai territory. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared earlier that the world “adjustment” would have been more appropriate to describe any works on the temple. The Phnom Penh Post reported on Friday that the plan included a variety of conservation works, such as repairing and protecting stairs on the eastern side of the 11th-century temple. The temple was damaged by artillery shells and bullets during four days of fight last February. Both sides accuse each other for shooting first on the temple compound.

If Cambodia seems to have, so far, won on the diplomatic front, the loser is definitely the beautiful Preah Vihear temple site and, of course, the people living around there. There is, however, some hope to a more dignified solution: the resignation will not be effective immediately as the process takes time due to its international involvement. Until that date, power might also have shifted in Bangkok, following the July 3 general elections in Thailand.

Juergen Thomas Steinmetz has continuously worked in the travel and tourism industry since he was a teenager in Germany (1979), beginning as a travel agent up through today as a publisher of eTurboNews (eTN), one of the world’s most influential and most-read travel and tourism publications. He is also Chairman of ICTP. His experiences include working and collaborating with various national tourism offices and non-governmental organizations, as well as private and non-profit organizations, and in planning, implementing, and quality control of a range of travel and tourism-related activities and programs, including tourism policies and legislation. His major strengths include a vast knowledge of travel and tourism from the point of view of a successful private enterprise owner, superb networking skills, strong leadership, excellent communication skills, strong team player, attention to detail, dutiful respect for compliance in all regulated environments, and advisory skills in both political and non-political arenas with respect to tourism programs, policies, and legislation. He has a thorough knowledge of current industry practices and trends and is a computer and Internet junkie.