An editorial in today's "Bangkok Post" regarding the ongoing Thai-Cambodian border dispute and specifically its effects on the 11th century temple at Preah Vihear, or Khao Phra Viharn.
Dr Brendan Whyte
Ubon Ratchathani University
A way out of the impasse
Anyone who has been to Preah Vihear, or Khao Phra Viharn in Thai, can attest to the breath-taking beauty of the ancient Khmer ruins atop the Dongrek Range on the Thai-Cambodian border. They might also feel the tension that seems to envelop the surroundings - a result of the bitter wrangle over ownership of the 11th century temple.
Thailand and Cambodia should realise that visitors to this sanctuary appreciate the first aspect, not the latter. And if they want ever more travellers from all over the world to appreciate this architectural wonder of Southeast Asia, the authorities have no choice but to strike a deal. This means they must stop quibbling and start searching seriously for a way to manage the sanctuary together.
This option of joint management should have been clear from the start, considering the location of the sanctuary atop a hill that sits right on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, with the more convenient access located on the Thai side. Still, what should have been an issue for amicable discussion became a problem to solve, when
Cambodia unilaterally requested the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to register the temple as a World Heritage Site last year. Thailand is opposed to the proposal, as such a listing would include not just management of the temple site but the outer areas that serve as a buffer zone, which lie in disputed territory and which have still to be cleared of mines laid by the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia has been pursuing the World Heritage status by itself and it is expected that its application will be accepted this year. Without a resolution on the territorial conflict, however, it looks like the new status will bring more problems and feelings of animosity to the ancient stone ruins. This would be a pity and defeat the whole
purpose of having it recognised as a heritage of the world.
The only thing that is clear in this otherwise very complicated tussle over Preah Vihear is the ruling by the International Court of Justice that the sanctuary itself is under Cambodian sovereignty. This judgement has left some room for argument about the surrounding area, where demarcation between the two countries has not been settled. In fact, the entire 195km border in the Preah Vihear area remains in dispute. The optimistic estimate is that it will take slightly more than 10 years to settle the border issue. The pessimistic forecast predicts it will take forever, as the Thai and Cambodian authorities hold two different maps when they come to the negotiating table.
Considering the circumstances, it seems likely the pessimistic view will prevail. For that reason, both countries might as well leave the territorial dispute aside and take the time to work on a solution regarding the temple itself. In this light, it would be in their best interests - and for Preah Vihear to receive the smooth, sustainable conservation and management it deserves - to get the World Heritage status, while agreeing on some form of joint management of the overlapping areas. Neither country need concede any land area or agree on the demarcation line at this point. They only need to agree that since they cannot yet find a solution, they will therefore manage it
together, with clear guidelines over which country would be responsible for which aspect of the management. Though the long-standing territorial dispute might not be solved, at the very least the long-overdue preservation and management of the much-admired ruins will be able to proceed.
Explore the seven wonders of the world