Saturday, 31 July 2010

Thai premier in a bind on Preah Vihear

via Khmer NZ

Saturday, July 31, 2010
By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation/Asia News Network

BANGKOK -- Many people in Thailand have observed that it was very “un-Abhisit” for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to threaten to burn the bridges with Unesco without eloquently explaining what on earth was going on in Brazil.

A little travel down memory lane and we may find possible answers.

Abhisit Vejjajiva's scathing attacks on the Samak Sundaravej government two years ago over its support for Cambodia's attempts to register Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage Site have limited the prime minister's options. In the 2008 showdown, Abhisit and other Democrats deplored the Samak administration's move as something that might undermine the future Thai stand when it comes to the controversial temple and surrounding areas.

Defending its decision to support Cambodia's registration efforts, the Samak government pointed to two basic legal points. The first was the World Court ruling in 1962 declaring that the temple was on Cambodian territory. The second was Article 61 of the World Court ruling, which states: “No application for revision may be made after a lapse of 10 years from the date of the judgement.” Article 61 featured prominently in Cambodia's application document to Unesco, with “LAPSE OF TEN YEARS” written in capital letters.

The Democrat camp led by Abhisit at the time pointed out Article 60 of the court's ruling. This article allows warring parties to reserve doubts and observations concerning rulings and, unlike Article 61, this one does not spell out any time frame. Which article carries stronger weight is debatable, but the battle line was clearly drawn. The Democrats were saying that any Thai move that could weaken Thailand's “silent protest” against the World Court ruling had to be avoided.

Now that the temple has become a World Heritage Site and the Cambodians are seeking to submit its management plan to Unesco, the Democrats, now in government, find themselves in an awkward position. Supporting the management plan could easily be regarded as hypocrisy and everything could blow up in Abhisit's face.

The Thai delegation led by Natural Resources Minister Suwit Khunkitti went to Brazil somewhat in the dark, not knowing if the Cambodians had sneaked in any sensitive territorial information when they proposed the management plan. When the pro-government People's Alliance for Democracy staged a sit-in in front of the Unesco Bangkok office on Wednesday, Abhisit had no choice but to act tough.

In fact, there are considerable safeguards. It is stated clearly in Unesco rules that declaration of a World Heritage Site is not legally binding when overlapping territorial claims are concerned. And a management plan for a World Heritage Site is even less likely to enable one party to assert new territorial claims.

But it doesn't matter now whether concern that Phnom Penh could gain the upper hand over disputed areas surrounding the temple if Thailand supports the management plan is solid or not. The issue has become politically charged, with nationalism about to simmer. One wrong move and what Abhisit said in Parliament to the Samak government in 2008 would come back to haunt him big time. The opposition Pheu Thai Party, surely, must be combing the video and audio archives of the Thai Parliament right now. Abhisit can only hope Unesco will delay the issue, or he will come under great pressure to make good his threat, regardless of whether the management plan is Cambodia's secret tool to gain more ground, literally, or not.

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