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Celebrating World Heritage

Preah Vihear

WITH dancing and drumming, pigeons and postage stamps, soldiers and civilians gathered at Preah Vihear temple and in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the temple's inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In Preah Vihear, the festivities began early, with a group of about 60 Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) soldiers - bearing rocket launchers, AK-47s and automatic weapons - gathering at the top of the temple at 7:30am. They stood at attention as commanders instructed them to protect the temple and, in turn, the Kingdom's heritage.

As the soldiers stood guard, RCAF generals including Hing Bun Heang presided over a morning ceremony, during which provincial and military officials released seven pigeons as well as balloons bearing the date of the inscription. Attendees were then treated to a traditional dance performance.

Though UNESCO's decision to accept Cambodia's World Heritage site application last July led to a year of heightened tension near the temple, 10 Thai soldiers stationed on the mountain's pagoda said Tuesday that the pageantry of the anniversary celebrations did not bother them.

"It is not a problem for us that Cambodians celebrate today," said Major Apichat Poopuak, "and it's not a problem for Thailand. We don't mind their celebration."

Though the presence of Thai soldiers at the pagoda has been a source of contention in recent weeks, Apichat said the Thai soldiers had encountered no resistance when they approached it Tuesday.

A senior RCAF military commander who spoke on condition of anonymity said there would be "no attempt" to remove Thai soldiers from the pagoda during the anniversary ceremony.

"We will celebrate the ceremony first, and then take steps to prevent the soldiers from returning to the pagoda," he said, though he did not elaborate on what those steps might be or when they would be taken.

Meas Pi, a 23-year-old RCAF soldier, said that he believed tensions had cooled dramatically at the temple complex in recent days, adding that
the chances of further armed conflict breaking out at the temple were remote.

Photo by: Heng Chivoan
A monk beats a drum Tuesday at Wat Lanka during a celebration marking Preah Vihear's listing as a World Heritage site.

"I don't believe the Thai soldiers will attack us, and I don't think that any clashes will happen," he said. "The Thai soldiers understand our difficult past. Even now, though the situation remains tense, it is better compared to the past because ... now we do not push each other. We just stand in our bunkers."

Not everyone shared his optimism.

Nin Hon, 37, an RCAF soldier from Brigade 7, said Thailand's refusal to withdraw from the pagoda and from other disputed territory along the border would inevitably lead to conflict.

"If they don't withdraw, we will push them out," he said. "Now we are just waiting for the order."

Brigadier General Thol Sovann, deputy commander of Division 3, said lingering distrust between Cambodian and Thai troops had prompted RCAF commanders to keep some troops posted throughout the ceremony.

"Even though there is a ceremony at the temple, we have not gone to attend because we need to stand at the border," he said. "We don't know what the Thai soldiers will do during the ceremony."

In the capital
The sound of drums and bells could be heard emanating from schools and pagodas in Phnom Penh beginning at 11am Tuesday as residents heeded the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen to celebrate the occasion.

Chea Ban, a 40-year-old monk at Wat Lanka, said he was celebrating the "magic power" of Preah Vihear temple, which he said had forced "the enemy" to surrender.

"We drummed today in order to wake up our compatriots and to welcome the victory of Preah Vihear temple's inscription as a World Heritage site," he said, adding that he believed the celebration would strengthen the will of Cambodians "to defend their territorial sovereignty".

Hok Sothy, 20, a student at the Royal University of Law and Economics who also attended the Wat Lanka ceremony, said he believed the first anniversary of the temple's inscription would be an event that Cambodians of his generation would remember forever.

"The sound of the drums today gave me goosebumps all the way up to my head, and it woke up my love for the nation," Hok Sothy said. "Even though I am a student, I feel ready to fight for the interests of the nation."

In a speech Tuesday evening at Olympic Stadium, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An also touched on themes of pride and national unity, adding that the "successful" World Heritage Committee meeting in Seville, Spain, last month further cemented the victory of Preah Vihear's inscription.

He said the committee had asked Cambodia to continue working to preserve the temple and to present an additional report about preservation work in 2010. His comments appeared to be an attempt to refute Thai media reports that Cambodia's presentation had been incomplete and thus rejected by the committee.

Also Tuesday, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications So Khun told the Post that the ministry was planning to publish 20,000 stamps featuring the image of Preah Vihear temple.

"We have already released the stamps to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the temple's listing and to promote it worldwide," So Khun said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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