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Fostering a sense of heritage

UNESCO's Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai sees stubborn pursuit of peace as the key to healing the rift between clashing cultures.

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Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai, president of UNESCO's executive council, tours the Preah Vihear temple complex near the Cambodia-Thailand border on Friday.

What were your impressions of Preah Vihear temple?

I knew the site before because I was vice chairman of the World Heritage Committee when the file was submitted [to UNESCO]. So I knew the file and the controversy. On the spot, I was not surprised because it was chosen for the universal value of its heritage.

But I said to myself that we did not make a mistake and that we should have listed it as a World Heritage site a long time ago if history would have allowed us to do so. Concerning the recent events, I saw pieces of shrapnel, bullets and the Thai soldiers at the border.

As I said to the Cambodians, I encouraged them to be patient and to look stubbornly for peace and for dialogue. Both sides have to hold on to the rule of law and on what international law says. This is a conflict that will resolve itself with the time.

Does UNESCO play any role in the negotiations between Thailand and Cambodia to solve the conflict?

No, we don't.

Before choosing Preah Vihear, you were aware of the tensions between the two countries?

A country petitions for the World Heritage's list. The file was technical, not political. We delayed our decision in order to allow the states to agree. We are interested in the universal value of the site. We would have preferred that this border heritage unite [Cambodia and Thailand].

Cambodian newspapers interpret your visit as showing political support for Cambodia. How would you characterise the purpose of your visit?

Does Cambodia need political support? You know, I could have come before. I was invited for a very long time. If my visit reinforces Cambodia, this is not my intention -- but good! I am acting as the president of UNESCO's executive council.

I have come in order to see Cambodia's heritage and to encourage Cambodians to submit more sites for World Heritage status. A lot of them deserve it. At UNESCO, we are interested in the heritage because it does more for peace than politics.

Photo by: Vong Sokheng

Cambodian soliders stand guard at the Preah Vihear temple complex in January. 

In what ways does heritage serve the cause of peace more than politics?

When heritage is known and shared by people who are strangers to your culture, they have to put their own culture in perspective. The other day I was joking: ‘The French probably had to relativise Versailles when confronted by Angkor Wat!' When you look at Angkor Wat, you have to think about the history, the ideas and the philosophy that led to it. This thought is an ingredient of peace, with education of course. And that's how humanity will appropriate this heritage. Peace grows in people's minds.

After that, if a country wants to declare war and the heritage is threatened, there will be people to say, ‘Stop'!. This is the sowing of peace.

Among the sites you have visited (Banteay Chhmar, Sambo Preykub, Beng Mealea, Koh Ke, Damrei and Leung Balang), which one do you think deserves World Heritage status?

I did not visit a single site that does not deserve it, natural sites included. I've visited a sanctuary for birds on the Tonle Sap Lake [Prek Toal], which maybe could be part of a mixed natural and cultural heritage [site] because of the fishermen's lifestyle in the lakeside village. It is like in my country, in Benin.

The difference is that in Benin, the people who live this way were forced to leave their land because of raids by those who wanted to catch slaves. They were refugees. They built their houses on piles on the water and created a new lifestyle. In this nature reserve of the Tonle Sap Lake, I was told that there is a great variety of birds and a great biodiversity. I am sure there are also a lot of different reptile and plant species.

Why did the site of Koh Ker make such a strong impression on you?

It never occurred to me that there was a pyramid in Cambodia! I was amazed. The pyramid is a way to express oneself that people have in common. All these civilisations were not contemporaneous: Khmer, Inca, Aztec. It proves the uniqueness of the human spirit, its universality. But these are not stories that are written in the newspapers.

Why have you said that Cambodians are very discreet about their heritage?

Some countries that have a tenth of this heritage would make more noise about it.

What are the most important factors for implementing sustainable protections of cultural heritage?

Besides conservation efforts, the involvement of the local communities is very important, so that they appropriate this heritage and understand that it belongs to them.

It is necessary to educate people about heritage because you can never take this notion for granted.

Education is a long-term process. You need to train one generation before getting the dividends of this education while heritage is visible and alive at the present time.




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