Preah Vihear, the 900-year-old temple currently in the spotlight, has always been like a restless ghost. At a proper given moment and background, it finds a way to come back and haunt the Thai people.
On June 15, 1962 the whole country mourned when the International Court of Justice ruled that the ancient Khmer-style temple was situated in Cambodian territory.
This year, the ghost of Preah Vihear has returned with a vengeance.
The eerie episode started on June 18, when Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama signed a joint communique with the Cambodian government, endorsing the latter in unilaterally nominating the Preah Vihear Temple for inscription as a World Heritage Site.
The World Heritage label is a high-profile global status which will bring fame and real advantages including tourists and money, and financial grants from the United Nations’ World Heritage Fund.
The sentiment is similar to the fervent patriotism in 1962, when each Thai citizen was asked to chip in at least one baht to help fund Thailand’s attempt to defend the temple at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
Last week in Si Sa Ket province, local protesters threatened to evict Cambodians living in the problematic overlapping area along the border. Cambodia has closed access to the temple since last week.
Like a good Hollywood remake, the ghost of Preah Vihear has had some new features for the 2008 version. This time, centre stage is devoted to which country will secure the World Heritage Status for Preah Vihear temple.
The World Heritage Committee (WHC) is an independent body under the Unesco umbrella. It is holding its annual meeting from today till July 10 in Quebec, Canada, during which it approves or defers World Heritage nominations.
It is almost certain that Cambodia will resubmit its nomination for Preah Vihear. Since 1992, the country has tried to inscribe the temple as a World Heritage site.
Cambodia’s past attempts were vetoed by Thailand, which feared a unilateral nomination would include the 4.6 square kilometres of overlapping land still under dispute.
The WHC’s last meeting in New Zealand deferred Cambodia’s nomination and advised that the country get consent from Thailand.
Cambodia managed to secure the endorsement when Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama signed the joint communique on June 18, 2008. According to the joint communique, Thailand supports the inscription of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site as proposed by Cambodia. And Cambodia, in showing reciprocal goodwill and conciliation, will nominate only the temple structure, without the buffer zone on the northern and western areas of the temple.
But the Cambodian move has since faced obstacles. Last week, 43 Thai senators and 300 members of the Thai elite establishment signed a petition asking the WHC to defer Cambodia’s nomination of Preah Vihear and sought time for Thailand to file a joint-nomination. The campaign has picked up momentum, with another 25,000 Thais having signed the petition.
The protesters say Cambodia’s unilateral nomination would undermine the integrity of the ancient Hindu site. The temple was not a stand-alone architecture, but a complex in which related structures i.e stupas, barai (man-made lake) are interrelated and constitute a meaning within the ancient Hindu belief.
Inscribing only the temple while ignoring the related structures that make it whole – which are located in Thailand’s territory – would undermine the integrity of the site, said Senator M R Priyanandana Rangsit. She insisted the WHC should defer the listing and give Thailand time to prepare the necessary document for joint nomination.
The WHC has a long history of inscribing entire sites, such as Angkor, the whole ancient cities of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai or even the Jesuit mission of the Guaranis which is a transboundary property between Brazil and Argentina. But integrity is not a must. Richard Engelhardt, an adviser at Unesco’s Asia-Pacific office, said the WHC sometimes gave weight to only architectural value. For instance, only the Taj Mahal building was listed as a World Heritage site while the garden in the same compound was omitted.
In case of transboundary property, the WHC does allow State party members to file a joint nomination.
So far, the WHC has inscribed 851 properties with universal values, including 660 cultural sites and 166 natural sites – 25 of them are transboundary properties.
The WHC has two avenues for countries with shared property to secure the World Heritage status. First, countries can file for a joint nomination and help manage the site together under the same rules laid down by Unesco. For disagreeing countries, the WHC allows each individual member to lodge a separate nomination. Each country would separately manage the site.
But the question is whether Thailand and Cambodia can or should resume cordial relations and file for joint nomination.
Cultural experts in Thailand have criticised the data which Cambodia has submitted to WHC as being one-sided and distorted from the facts, thereby undermining the value of the related structures that lie in Thai territory.
The International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) in Thailand sent a petition to Unesco to reconsider the information from Cambodia, according to Vasu Poshyanondana, archaeologist and assistant secretary-general at Icomos-Thailand office.
Icomos is an advisory agency which gives recommendations to Unesco on conservation techniques and provides technical assistance to the WHC on the granting of World Heritage status to State party’s nominations.
However, the final decision rests with the WHC. This year, neither Thailand nor Cambodia sits on the committee.
The WHC has spent the past 30 months reading the information proposed by Cambodia, according to Mr Engelhardt. The Thai senators’ question about the integrity of the whole site is a challenging one for the WHC. At the end, the WHC will relay the question back to, and check on the position of, the Thai government.
It remains to be seen what the Thai government will do, since the Administrative Court has granted an injunction while checking if Minister Noppadon had the authority to sign the joint communique endorsing Cambodia’s unilateral inscription of the temple.
Sompen Kutranon, a Thai businesswoman who has lived in Phnom Penh for 18 years, said local people were not paying much interest to this issue. They understand that the Preah Vihear issue has been politicised by anti-government protesters.
The Cambodian government only needs Preah Vihear as a new tourist attraction. Ms Sompen – who helped staff at the Thai embassy during the riot against Thais in 2003 – said she did not expect another riot against Thais.
“The Cambodian government will not allow any riot because the economy in Phnom Penh is very good. It will not allow any turmoil that could scare investors away,” she said.
She added that people in Cambodia, herself included, could not understand why Thais had to protest against Cambodia’s attempt to enlist its own property as a World Heritage site.
“Local Cambodians are very clear. The temple belongs to Cambodia and it is their right to get it listed. People here do not care about the overlapping land and surrounding areas. They have been waiting for the temple to become a heritage of the world,” she said.
“If they find that Unesco has deferred its decision again, they may get angry, very angry,” Ms Sompen said.