QUEBEC — UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voted yesterday to list the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site despite concerns the ruling could spark another cross-border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.
After hours of closed-door deliberations yesterday, the 21 members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee struck a last-minute compromise that accepted the Cambodian government’s request for the designation. The decision overrides a Thai court injunction against the application.
Located on a 525-metre cliff in Cambodia’s province of Preah Vihear overlooking Thailand, the temple has been at the centre of a border dispute between the two countries for decades.
The World Court in The Hague ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia. However, both countries have claimed 4.6 square kilometres of land surrounding the temple, and the overlapping territory remains the source of underlying tensions.
When Cambodia applied to have the temple designated a World Heritage Site, it included the disputed territory. Thailand’s objections appeared to have been resolved earlier this year when Cambodia agreed to propose only the temple ruins. After a 10-hour meeting in Paris last May, the Thai government agreed to support the revised application.
Thailand was even receptive to including part of the disputed territory on its side of the border, saying the historic region surrounding the temple ruins should have as much protection as possible.
However, after a flurry of public protest in Thailand, a Thai court ruled last month that the agreement was invalid, creating a major obstacle for UNESCO. The issue was finally resolved yesterday with UNESCO concluding that the Cambodian application included only the temple ruins.
Francisco Caruso, who acted as facilitator in the talks between Thailand and Cambodia, said that UNESCO’s decision was not a political move.
“It is a cultural decision which respects the Cambodian will to obtain recognition of the temple site,” he said
He said he hoped that the entire area will be included in the World Heritage Site once the boundary dispute is settled.
The Preah Vihear temple was built in the ninth century during the Khmer Empire and provides a fascinating historical perspective on the sacred rituals of Khmer society.