Monday, July 4, 2011

Walk back in to the WHC

July 4, 2011
Source: Bangkok Post

One of the first jobs of the new government must be an urgent reassessment of the Cambodian border problems. The outgoing government under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has not handled this issue well. The dead, the wounded and the homeless testify to that. The new government must reverse the walkout at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Paris by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti.

Border relations with Cambodia, attention to our heritage and history and the country's image, all have been harmed in recent months.

It will be an effort to repair this damage and move ahead, but a determined government can handle the problem.

The faint praise and arm's-length "backing" that Mr Abhisit gave to Mr Suwit is instructive. Deeply involved in an election campaign, the premier sensed that the public had little sympathy for the walkout from Paris. Indeed, it was wrong on many levels.

The only saving grace for now is that Thailand has not signed anything, and it is only a walkout and not, as originally reported, a Thai decision to leave the World Heritage Convention.

An early act by the next prime minister should be to make it clear to the public and to Unesco that Thailand will be back, full of facts and fight, as soon as the WHC meets again.

From the beginning, the entire dispute over the border has seemed somewhat artificial. Even granting that the dispute over 4.6sqkm of territory is serious, there never seemed to be a real reason for military conflict. Cambodia has often been unreasonable and stubborn, but that is not a justification for mortal combat, with the death and destruction which always results.

In retrospect, sending Mr Suwit to Paris was probably a mistake. The World Heritage Commission is not a place for politicians. It is where technocrats and experts carefully watch and debate placement of commas and relevance of old maps. The head of the WHC delegation should be a highly qualified expert in Thai history and events in neighbouring countries.

One cannot blame Mr Suwit for acting like a politician; that is what he is.

Which brings us to the other politician deeply involved in this unnecessary problem. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen would do better to get over both his infatuation with ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and his personal animosity towards outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit. The Khmer leader has not only allowed his personal feelings to intrude into the serious business of international diplomacy, he has relished the event.

In goading Thailand, especially through attacks on Mr Abhisit and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, Mr Hun Sen has exacerbated the passions which led to so many deaths and so much spilt blood.

Mr Suwit's claim is that Cambodian-sponsored documents under discussion at the WHC meeting "could have led" to a loss of territory. That has also been the singular claim of the People's Alliance for Democracy.

Yet the head of Unesco, Irina Bokova, has disputed this. And in truth, the WHC has never taken up the Cambodian plan for management of the temple, nor scheduled a meeting to discuss it.

It is thus unfortunate but inevitable that Mr Suwit's actions have been characterised as a political gambit, designed to get votes for his Social Action Party.The next government should handle this affair differently, and better.

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