Friday, 20 June 2008

Preah vihear 'success' just a return to the status quo

Fri, June 20, 2008
Published on June 20, 2008

Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama tried hard to tell the public that he actually achieved something in his dealings with Cambodia when in fact he only returned the fiasco over Preah Vihear to the status quo.

He wanted the Thais to see him as the hero who stopped Cambodia from encroaching on Thailand's territory - namely the overlapping 4.6 square kilometres at the tenth century Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, known in Thai as Prasat Khao Pra Viharn.

But the harder he tried to paint himself as a man who defended the nation's territorial integrity, the more the Thais doubted him.

First of all, returning to the status quo shouldn't qualify as a success because, essentially, nothing has really changed.

To add to his public-relations nightmare, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) asked whether his decision to support - or at least not object to - Cambodia's bid to have Preah Vihear listed as a Unesco World Heritage site is linked to the interests of his old boss, Thaksin Shinawatra. The ousted premier is looking to carry out some major investment projects in the Cambodian property market and Koh Kong.

On Wednesday, Noppadon decided to reveal the map to the public after weeks of telling them to hold their horses.

From the map displayed on Wednesday, it was clear the portion of the temple that Cambodia would propose to Unesco is well within Cambodian territory and not part of the 4.6 square-kilometres of overlapping claim.

The decision came just as nearly 3,000 angry protesters were on the ministry's doorstep.

Noppadon came across as a battered man cornered by an angry crowd that was not going to settle for anything less than his head. Nobody wants to listen to technical explanations; nationalist sentiments run deep in this country. The cat is already out of the bag and Noppadon is not entirely blameless for his current predicament.

Noppadon's inability to shape public opinion at this point in time stems from the fact that he and the foreign ministry have consistently held their cards to their chests. Nobody saw the need to come clean with the public because nobody thought the street protesters would make such a stink about it.

The issue about Cambodia's effort to get Preah Vihear listed as a Unesco World Heritage site surfaced during the government of Surayud Chulanont.

The then foreign minister Nitya Pibulsonggram proposed a win-win formula that would have seen both Thailand and Cambodia co-sponsor a bid for the site to be put on Unesco's list. After all, it just does not make sense to have only a portion of the temple listed while other major components, which are located on the disputed territories and within Thai territory, are left out.

No one knows why Cambodia rejected this proposal, but Nitya stuck to his guns because he knew that a psychological partition by Unesco or any foreign or local agency would be like forcing the people of Si Sa Ket, as well as the Thai public, to relive the heartache of May 1962.

It is not clear why Noppadon strayed from this stance when in fact it best served Thailand.

He played up certain aspects of the issue when he did not have to - like the time he went to a Unesco meeting in Paris to represent Thailand rather than send technical or senior officials whose presence would have been more appropriate.

Moreover, Noppadon didn't make any effort to set the record straight as to what was in the making. Instead, he sat idly by and let the street protesters spin the whole thing in all shapes and forms and play up the sovereignty card and raise concerns over territorial integrity.

His performance on Wednesday, during which he tried to spill his heart out, came across as bad acting.

But in reality, he was reacting to the language of sovereignty. He played up the map, brought members of the Royal Thai Survey Department on board when in fact sovereignty was a non-issue from the beginning. In other words, he was dancing to the tune of the protesters and didn't even realise it.

His decision to come clean and open his mouth about the map failed and did little to quell the anger. It came at time when trust was at its lowest.

Last July in Christchurch, New Zealand, during a Unesco meeting, Thailand stopped Cambodia in its tracks when it tried to unilaterally propose Preah Vihear to Unesco.

It remains to be seen what Noppadon or the Thai government will do in the body's next meeting in Quebec, Canada early next month.

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