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A very troubled temple

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No end in sight for standoff over ‘extraordinary’ Preah Vihear

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Soldiers look on as the Unesco and Cambodian national flags are raised over Preah Vihear in a ceremony on November 7. 

AFTER a 17-year wait, Preah Vihear, along with 19 other sites, was inscribed as a new site on the World Heritage list of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) on July 8, 2008, although the inscription excluded the 4.6 square kilometre plot of land adjoining the temple.

The inscription of the sacred site has been one of the most challenging tasks of the Cambodian government. The case has been widely publicised, but many wonder why its inscription is such an important and controversial issue.

Aside from symbolising Cambodia's majestic past, national pride in current Cambodia and optimism for Cambodia's future, one of the foremost benefits of Preah Vihear being inscribed as a World Heritage site is the recognition that the temple has "outstanding universal value".

This should raise global awareness of Preah Vihear temple and bring economic benefit from increased tourist revenues. The concept of World Heritage lies in its universal application of ownership by all peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which it is located.

A backdrop of controversy

The ownership of Preah Vihear temple, located on a dramatic promontory with sweeping views over Cambodia, has long been a point of contention between Thailand and Cambodia. The site has been the centre of diplomatic tension between Cambodia and Thailand since 1902.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled in Cambodia's favour stating that the temple indeed belonged to Cambodia, but the court failed to define the border in the area.

Preah Vihear's location is on a promontory of the Dangrek escarpment, over five hundred metres above the Cambodian plain, making access from the Cambodian side difficult. Most tourists visit the temple from the Thai side of the border where the land slopes gently up from the plain of Khorat. The issue of ease of access is one of Thailand's most powerful and oft-argued justifications for ownership over Preah Vihear temple.

Much of the controversy over the temple's inscription is linked to internal politics of Thailand. A military coup in 2006 forced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office. Thaksin's party reinvented itself and was re-elected with a new leader, Samak Sundaravej. Prime Minister Samak contended that the agreement to allow the Preah Vihear inscription was initiated by the military government that ruled after Thaksin's ousting and that the new government was acting on promises made by the preceding government.

The opposition party was bitterly opposed to Samak's government and managed to have an Administrative Court invoke an injunction on the government's decision to allow Preah Vihear's inscription as a World Heritage site. Samak claimed in interviews at the time that the controversy was driven by a vendetta against former Prime Minister Thaksin.

Since Somchai Wangsawat took over from Samak as Prime Minister in September 2008, there has been a significant escalation of conflict in the border area, although not at Preah Vihear.

Unique heritage values

A holy site was established on the promontory as early as the ninth century, but most of the temple we see today was built during the reigns of Suryavarman I (AD 1002-1050) and Suryavarman II (AD 1113-1150). The sanctuary is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in the King's manifestations as the mountain gods Sikharesvara and Bhadresvara.

The temple complex is on a grand scale, stretching 800 metres along the crest of the ridge, although this is the result of centuries of additions and modifications to what was certainly a much simpler original layout.

Preah Vihear is currently in a state of disrepair, so it is incumbent on the international community as a whole to participate in the protection of this heritage site by assisting with its conservation and preservation. Preah Vihear is one of the greatest achievements of Khmer architecture and undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary temples in the world. The site represents an incredible opportunity for both Cambodia and Thailand to benefit from its inscription.

There is no doubt that the temple was built by the ancestors of the Khmer people, and the Cambodian government should be applauded for securing the temple's inscription so that all the world may share in celebrating this ancient monument.

Yet given the current, highly publicised military build-up by both sides at the temple site following the decision by Unesco, it is clear that the controversy surrounding the Temple of Preah Vihear is far from being concluded.



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