Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Temple issue linked to suspicious motives

The Nation
Published on June 25, 2008

Government accused of selling out Thai sovereignty for lucrative deals in Cambodia In 1962 when Thailand lost the sovereignty case over the Preah Vihear Temple to Cambodia in the International Court of Justice, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the then leader, could not contain his tears. Thais of that generation also felt the pain of the loss. Ever since, whenever the issue of Preah Vihear is raised, Thais feel very emotional. It was one of the greatest losses for the nation.

From the legal standpoint, Thailand has reserved the right not to agree with the Court's ruling. But as a member of the United Nations, it has agreed to move its troops from Preah Vihear. The Court only ruled that Preah Vihear is under Cambodian sovereignty. Its ruling does not cover the temple area where the pond and the approach belong to Thailand. A visitor can only access the temple by taking a route from Thai territory. From the Cambodian side, one has to climb an almost sheer cliff, which is impossible for ordinary people. Thailand and Cambodia are also in dispute regarding an overlapping area of 4.6 square kilometres.

The Cambodian government has filed an application with Unesco for the Preah Vihear temple complex to be listed as a World Heritage site. The political controversy in Thailand is why the Samak government has rushed to endorse Cambodia's sole application for the temple to become a Unesco-listed site.

This matter should have been handled with more diplomacy, through a joint application from both governments. Otherwise, this signals to the whole world that Thailand has accepted that the Preah Vihear Temple belongs to Cambodia when past Thai governments held reservations on the International Court of Justice's ruling, which is not considered final from the Thai stance. Moreover, the Samak government has agreed to endorse Cambodia's sole application for Preah Vihear to become a World Heritage site by setting aside the long-standing territorial dispute and proposed buffer zone on the north and west of the temple.

"For its part, the Kingdom of Cambodia, in a spirit of goodwill and conciliation, accepted to inscribe the Temple of Preah Vihear on the World Heritage List, at this stage, without a buffer zone on the north and west of the Temple," according to a document from the Cambodian government.

Cambodia has prepared the 47-page document for Unesco, detailing how the Thai government has been providing "active support" for the temple to be on the World Heritage List. This propaganda material looks, on the surface, very convincing because it chronicles step by step how the present Thai leaders - Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister; Noppadon Pattama, the foreign minister; and Somchai Wongsawat, the deputy prime minister and education minister - went to Phnom Penh to endorse Cambodia's sole application for the temple to be listed.

Again, we question why the Thai government is so keen to endorse Cambodia's move on Preah Vihear in the absence of a joint application to Unesco and in the absence of an amicable agreement on the territorial dispute. Most importantly, the endorsement is sending a signal that Thailand will never try to reclaim Preah Vihear. The Samak government has committed a big diplomatic blunder, which is unforgivable.

This controversy has become a ticking bomb. The People's Alliance for Democracy has been holding street demonstrations in front of Government House and is playing up the Preah Vihear issue and accusing the government of selling off the temple in return for casino and gas deals in Koh Kong. The opposition Democrats yesterday also focused the no-confidence censure debate on this issue. More than 300 distinguished Thais have also signed a letter to protest against any Unesco decision at this point to have the temple included on the World Heritage List while the sovereignty question over the temple and the temple area remains ambiguous.

The government's clarification of this issue is unclear. We have lost confidence in the government's ability to handle the Preah Vihear issue in the best interests of the nation.

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