REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA)
By Andrew Buncombe,
Wednesday, 9 July 2008
Thousands of Cambodians celebrated in the streets after an 11th-century temple was finally granted World Heritage status, even as a political row relating to the Hindu site continued to simmer with neighbouring Thailand.
Almost 50 years after an international court ruled that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia rather than Thailand, Unesco has decided that the complex that sits on the border of the two countries deserved the special status. When people awoke to the news yesterday morning, thousands poured on to the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, to celebrate.
The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, said: “This is another proud achievement for our people, the people in the region as well as the whole world, that the temple is being recognised as the Khmer’s greatest architecture. It resulted from a very long and complicated process and negotiations.”
Cambodia started seeking special status for the temple in 2001 in the belief that it would help boost tourism and lead to additional international funding. Thailand had long opposed the designation because it feared the ruling would grant disputed land along the border to Cambodia.
But in May, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, threw his weight behind the application. His undertaking of support bypassed the country’s parliament and his political opponents seized on the affair, stirring up a nationalist frenzy and accusing him of violating the nation’s sovereignty. Just last month, Mr Samak survived a confidence vote that was brought by his opponents, who accuse him of acting as a proxy for the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Even as Cambodia celebrated yesterday, the political row in Thailand continued. The country’s most senior court ruled that a communiqué approved by the cabinet in June which backed Cambodia’s application to Unesco for the 900-year-old temple had required the approval of parliament. The opposition Democrat party said it would use the ruling to try to force out the country’s Foreign Minister, Noppadon Pattama, who had created the communiqué.
“The Preah Vihear temple is part of a wounded history of Thailand and Cambodia,” Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, told the Associated Press. “It was used to stir up a nationalist movement in the past and is now threatening to inflame politics again.”
The location of the temple has continued to serve as a defensive outpost until recently. In the spring of 1975, as Khmer Rouge rebels were seizing control of Phnom Penh, government troops continued to defend a base at Preah Vihear more than a month after the rest of the country had fallen.
In 1998, when the very last of the Khmer Rouge fighters agreed to surrender to the Cambodian government, Preah Vihear was the location of negotiations that led to the settlement.
Since Cambodia made its application in 2001 for special status for the site, both countries have increased security at their embassies amid fears that nationalist anger could get out of control.
But Unesco said that its designation of the site would not impact on discussions about the border. It said its ruling was based on a different application to the joint Thai-Cambodian communiqué which was criticised in Bangkok yesterday.
Preah Vihear: shrine to Shiva
Situated at the top of a 1,700ft-high cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, Preah Vihear was built between the 9th and 10th centuries.
The entrance to the temple is reached by a steep climb of 162 stone steps, which gets the heart pumping even before you have set your eyes on its magnificent carvings, pictured. It was built for the Hindu god Shiva during the reign of King Suryavarman, and is assembled in several stages, starting with the Shiva sanctuary at the top.
The temple is famed for one of the most stunning locations of any built during the Khmer empire.