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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Protecting Preah Vihear: soldiers, weapons and a World Heritage site

Protecting Preah Vihear: soldiers, weapons and a World Heritage site

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Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON

Armed Cambodian soldiers on the steps of Preah Vihear last month.

Temple Timeline

  • 1904, 1907: Franco-Siamese treaties create an ambiguous frontier, leaving sovereignty of Preah Vihear in doubt
  • 1954: Thai troops occupy Preah Vihear
  • October 1959: Cambodia applies unilaterally to the International Court of  Justice for a decision on the sovereignty of Preah Vihear and surroundings
  • June 1962: The ICJ awards temple to Cambodia, but the surrounding land remains undesignated. Thai troops leave the temple site
  • 1970s-1990s: Khmer Rouge occupy the site
  • September 1993: The Constitution of Cambodia declares national and World Heritage sites neutral zones with no military activity
  • 2001-2002: Thai military blocks access to Preah Vihear over water dispute
  • July 2008: Preah Vihear temple receives World Heritage listing
  • July 2008: Both sides move troops to the temple area
  • October 2008: Troops exchange fire, leaving two Cambodian soldiers dead
  • April 2009: Further military exchanges damage the temple
  • June 2009: Thailand announces it will protest the World Heritage listing

SINCE decades-old tensions over Preah Vihear erupted into violence last July, images of heavily armed Cambodian soldiers standing guard over the 11th-century ruins have been beamed across the globe.

The photographs of battle-hardened Cambodian soldiers, often ex-Khmer Rouge, in dark green uniforms with well-used AK-47 rifles, sitting on the lichen-covered stones of the ancient Khmer sanctuary, have come to epitomise the conflict. Such images have prompted a frenzy of media attention from overseas, and a huge domestic fundraising drive to support the nation's troops on the Kingdom's new front line.

But allowing armed troops into the temple at Preah Vihear is a direct violation of the Kingdom's Constitution, and the soldiers should leave immediately, according to one of the country's most respected heritage conservationists.

"Preah Vihear should also be free of military presence," said former president director general of the Apsara Authority, Vann Molyvann, in an interview with the Post earlier this month.

Too many archaeological sites, including Angkor Wat, have been destroyed or damaged in the past by military conflict, he said.

Legally, Vann Molyvann is in the right. Article 71 of Chapter VI of the Constitution of Cambodia, inscribed in 1993 under the auspices of the United Nations, states: "The perimeter of the national heritage sites, as well as heritage that has been classified as world heritage, shall be considered neutral zones where there shall be no military activity."

Preah Vihear was formally listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in July 2008.

But Thai officials will ask UNESCO to reconsider its decision to inscribe Preah Vihear temple, as ownership of land surrounding the ruins is still in dispute, at a meeting of the world heritage body in Spain also attended by a Cambodian delegation.

For its part, the Cambodian military claims there is no troop presence within the actual perimeter of the World Heritage site.

"Our soldiers got out of the temple a long time ago," Sao Socheat, deputy commander of Military Region 4, said Sunday. He explained that soldiers were not stationed within the World Heritage site, but based around its perimeter.

Colonel Om Phirom, chief of Heritage Police for Preah Vihear, agreed, telling the Post Monday there were no soldiers in the actual temple compound.

"Soldiers do not violate the World Heritage site," Om Phirom said. "They left the temple site many months ago and they have stood 30 metres away from protection site."

Om Phirom said the boundary for the World Heritage site was 30 metres from the edge of the temple's stonework.

"They can't dig a trench at the temple site because it is full of stone, and it is prohibited to do this," Om Phirom said.

   They can't dig trench at the temple site because it is full of stone, and it is prohibited to do this.

However, it is a moot point whether the military is obeying the spirit, or even the letter of the law by digging in their trenches so close to a protected site.

Only last month, Cambodian soldiers were photographed on the temple steps armed with machine guns. A section of the temple was also being used at that time as a bunker to store munitions, including B-42 rockets.

Protecting heritage

Referring to Article 71, Vann Molyvann said its inclusion in the Kingdom's Constitution had been "a specific decision made by Cambodia because of its experience" of war impacting national heritage.

He said Preah Vihear area should be demilitarised and placed under the control of the Ministry of Culture.

In a written response to the Post to questions on heritage law, Vann Molyvann pointed to how the Angkor site had been damaged after it was drawn into the Vietnam war in 1970 and taken over by guerrillas fighting in resistance to the Lon Nol regime.

"Angkor became a point of dispute between all military factions," he wrote. "A shell hit the extremely fine bas-reliefs of the temple's first-floor southern gallery. Several shells fell in a temple courtyard, provoking the collapse of the southern porch of the second-floor gallery."

Between 1975 and 1979, Angkorian temples, spiritual havens since the dawn of Khmer history, were abandoned as such, Vann Molyvann wrote.

"Objects of religious worship were considered without value. Buddha statues from Angkor Wat's ‘Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas' were broken off their pedestals, decapitated and reduced to dust."

Cambodia and Thailand have been at loggerheads over the land around Preah Vihear temple for decades, but tensions spilled over into violence last July following the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Thailand has long argued that only a joint Thai-Cambodian World Heritage site is suitable for Preah Vihear. In Spain currently, the Thais are asking that the temple grounds be placed under joint Thai-Cambodian maintenance, arguing that most visitors approach the temple from the Thai side.

Everyone is responsible

"Ensuring the protection of a World Heritage site is the collective responsibility of the international community," said UNESCO's head-of-office in Phnom Penh, Teruo Jinnai, via email Sunday. However, overseeing a demilitarised Preah Vihear was "not our mandate", he added.

Officials from the Ministry of Culture could not be contacted this week as they were in Spain for the UNESCO meeting.

However, Cambodia's Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Sunday that Cambodian soldiers were in Preah Vihear to protect the site from the Thai military.

"Now it is one year since Thai soldiers have invaded Cambodian territory, and they do not withdraw from it," Phay Siphan said.

"It is because of the Thai soldiers' invasion into Cambodian territory that our soldiers have been there, to protect our heritage."

However, it is questionable whether the presence of a military force will protect the heritage site or cause it more damage.

Following a brief military encounter in April, an exchange of gunfire left bullet pits in the temple, prompting UNESCO to study the damage and NGOs to call for compensation from the Thai government.

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