Saturday, July 2, 2011

A mistake to snub Unesco heritage convention

It appears that Thailand has cut off its nose to spite its face in the dispute over Preah Vihear Temple and adjacent territorial claims.

The recent decision by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti to walk out of the World Heritage Committee's meeting in Paris may have boosted his popularity here in certain quarters but in the long run Thailand's international standing may be put in an unwanted spotlight.

Thailand has to review its strategy regarding its decision to withdraw from the 1972 World Heritage Convention carefully after the kingdom decided to withdraw from the convention to express its disagreement with the World Heritage inscription of Cambodia's Preah Vihear Temple.

Suwit defended his decision by saying it was made to protect Thailand's sovereignty over the territory adjacent to Preah Vihear. He said it was "too risky" for Thailand to accept the Preah Vihear management plan, in which Unesco and its committee would be asked to dispatch experts for restoration of the temple.

Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), expressed her deep regret at Suwit's declaration of Thailand's intention to denounce the 1972 World Heritage Convention. She claimed that the World Heritage Committee did not discuss the management plan of the Temple of Preah Vihear, nor did it request any reports to be submitted on its state of conservation.

The International Court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear was in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia, but questions remain unanswered over 4.6 square kilometres of adjacent territory.

It is really too bad that after all the hype about Asean solidarity, Thailand and Cambodia are unable to get on as good neighbours. Bangkok thinks that Phnom Penh will use this status or momentum with the Preah Vihear situation, locally referred to as Phra Viharn, to strengthen its leverage over the disputed 4.6 square kilometres.

In other words, Thailand is concerned that any acknowledgement of World Heritage activities related to Preah Vihear from the Thai side will be taken as an acceptance of Phnom Penh's sovereignty over the temple and its vicinity.

One cannot deny that the two countries' handling of the dispute is tainted by political motivations on both sides. Political action groups and their leaders shamelessly exploit the issue for personal and political gain at the expense of stability and security.

A number of clashes have erupted along the border and there is no guarantee that this will not happen again. Neither side wants to pull troops back for fear that in doing so they would lose political capital.

Strangely absent from this discourse are the claims by main Cambodian opposition leader, Sam Rainsy - who has now gone into self-imposed exiled - accusing Hun Sen's long time friend Vietnam of encroaching on Cambodian land.

A Cambodian court handed Sam Rainsy a 14-year sentence for instigating unrest. Nothing like that is likely to happen in Thailand because our own exiled strongman, Thaksin Shinawatra, a close friend of Hun Sen, is on the run from the law and has opted for microphone diplomacy to discredit the Thai court that found him guilty of corruption.

The World Heritage Convention says "the inclusion of a property situated in a territory, sovereignty or jurisdiction which is claimed by more than one state shall in no way prejudice the rights of the parties to the dispute". But we continue to link the two together, perhaps for fear that anything else will give those opposing this view another reason to come out onto the streets for another round of mass protests.

Suwit's denunciation of the World Heritage Convention could affect the plan to list three Thai properties as World Heritage sites.

Thailand, which has accepted the convention since 1987, has five World Heritage sites and the three others are on the tentative list. They are: Phimai Temple, the "cultural route" and associated temples of Phanom Rung and Muang Tam (2004); the Phu Phrabat Historical Park (2004); and the Kaeng Krachan forest complex (2011).

The next government will have to determine Thailand's course regarding this matter. This doesn't feel like a reprieve, as both countries' domestic politics will most likely continue to aggravate this already sensitive border dispute, no matter who rules the roost domestically.

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