Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The preah vihear temple controversy for dummies

The Nation
By tulsathit taptim
Published on June 25, 2008

I stink where history is concerned and the only reason I dare touch upon the most explosive issue of the hours - the Preah Vihear Temple controversy - is simply because I believe some of you share my dismal knowledge on the subject.

Like the title of this article says, the following probably won't suit those looking for the science and legality of border demarcation or foolproof historical accuracy.

What exactly was the World Court's ruling and Thailand's legal reaction?

Basically, the court, in June, 1962, ruled that the temple belongs to Cambodia, leaving unsolved questions over disputed surrounding areas. The Thai government at that time accepted the ruling with clenched jaws and reserved its right to renew its fight for sovereignty if future legal opportunities arise.

What were the court's key reasons?

The ruling was based on a map drawn primarily by French colonial officers in the late 1900s and decades of Thailand's non-objection to the map that put the temple on Cambodian soil. The map was an integral part of a treaty whose benefits for Thailand, Bangkok had never complained about.

Does the Samak administration's decision to support Cambodia's push for registration of the temple as a World Heritage site compromise Thailand's sovereignty?

The decision, while obviously being overly politicised, was rash and uncalled for. It can be argued that the Joint Communique signed by Noppadon and the Cambodians to support the World Heritage nomination undermines decades of Thailand's "silent" protests against Phnom Penh's victory, and whatever right Bangkok may still hold to re-file the case.

Does Thailand still have that right?

The Samak government is holding on for dear life on Article 61 of the World Court regulation which states that "No application for revision may be made after the lapse of ten years from the date of the judgement". (In Cambodia's application document to Unesco, this article is highlighted, with "LAPSE OF TEN YEARS" in capital letters.)

In his scathing attacks on the government in Parliament yesterday, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva pointed out Article 60 of the court's regulation. This article allows warring parties to reserve doubts and observations concerning rulings and it does not spell out any timeframe.

Which article carries stronger weight is open for debate, but Abhisit was right in saying that Article 61 should be cited by Cambodian lawyers, not Noppadon.

Since Cambodia boasts full ownership of the temple, why does it need Thailand's backing for the application?

Unesco needs to reinforce sites' "universal values", therefore overlapping claims in surrounding areas could hinder Cambodia's unilateral efforts.

Maintenance capability seems to be one of the issues here. Unesco needs to ensure proper management and preservation for World Heritage sites. Apart from that, and this is my pure guess only, the fact that the temple, perched on a cliff higher than many New York skyscrapers, can only be accessed from the Thai side, makes Bangkok's cooperation for the World Heritage inscription quite essential.

Is "joint nomination, made on more equal grounds" better and possible as claimed by the Democrats?

Some experts say that joint nomination is the best way, and should be a role model for this kind of dispute in Thai-Cambodian relations. Unfortunately, Noppadon and the government as a whole failed to explore this possibility.

Whereas Thailand being able or unable to "reserve" its rights regarding Preah Vihear is somewhat abstract and has much to do with "what ifs?", Noppadon can be squarely criticised for not going for this best option for Thailand.

The temple is very "Khmer", isn't it? What's the point of Thailand's stubbornness?

Well, the World Court case, quite rightly I think, didn't focus on questions of cultural heritage or on which state was the successor to the Khmer Empire. Look at the location of the temple and it's obvious that everything regarding the grand-scale construction had to start from the Thai side. If this too had had to be taken into account, it would have made the dispute much more complex. For example, should the labour and transport routes have been declared Cambodian territory too?

Moreover, if the court had gone as far back as the early 9th century in establishing present ownership of a piece of a structure, all hell would have broken loose.

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