Monks in Phnom Penh celebrate Preah Vihear’s inscription as a World Heritage Site, July 9.
Since Monday’s decision by UNESCO to list Preah Vihear temple as a Cambodian World Heritage Site, the Kingdom’s nationalist rapture has subsided just enough to allow for more pragmatic thoughts of the pay-off.
Senior Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Cheam Yeap said July 10 that he expected the listing of the 11th-century Hindu temple, which had long been hotly disputed by Thailand, to result in a major boon for the ruling party in the July 27 general election.
“I am at Prey Veng near the Vietnam border right now. We told the voters of the success of Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he told the Post.
Yeap said Hun Sen deserved credit for the world body’s decision because he had sent a letter to UNESCO requesting the designation six years ago.
“There is no doubt that Samdech Hun Sen is a CPP leader,” he boasted.
Yeap said Prey Veng residents, particularly farmers, were showing their support for the CPP and were elated and proud of their premier, as was he.
“I cried in front of my wife once I heard UNESCO had made a decision on the temple.”
Khmer-language newspapers this week featured numerous advertisements placed by CPP officials, congratulating Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and CPP President Chea Sim on the world body’s decision.
However, Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, a Cambodian election monitor, questioned any exclusive claim to ownership of the temple victory and discouraged politicization of the site.
“I think all political parties can use Preah Vihear as a means of attracting voters, but no one party or group should get the credit alone,” he said.
“I think Preah Vihear temple is the pride of all Cambodians, as well as the political parties…. If only one party makes political gains off of Preah Vihear temple, I am afraid there will be an internal dispute that will lead to different attitudes about the temple.”
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay downplayed the ruling party’s hand in resolving the dispute with Thailand over ownership of the territory surrounding the temple, which for years had been the most significant obstacle to its listing.
“It is the normal obligation of a government to do this. It was not the special job of the CPP,” Chhay said.
Cambodia’s tourism sector, on the other hand, is less concerned with political points.
Ho Vandy, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, said on July 8 that 162 tour operators have begun promotion plans for package tours of Cambodia’s expanding heritage corridor. They will advertise in about 100 countries.
Vandy said the proposed package includes stops at Angkor Wat, Koh Ker temple in western Preah Vihear province, Preah Vihear temple, and Wat Phu, another Khmer temple in Laos.
But the immediate concern, Vandy said, should be developing Cambodia’s overland routes to Preah Vihear, which at present are rutted and jarring, making the temple far more accessible from the nearby Thai border.
Then restaurants, hotels and shops will follow, he said.
Minster of Tourism Thong Khon agreed, saying that there eventually will be four roads leading to the temple and at least one key artery will be completed by next year.
“I already sent a letter to the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation to push for the road construction,” he said.
The first sign of things to come actually preceded UNESCO’s decision; in May the newly formed Preah Vihear National Authority, or PVNA, deployed 22 heritage police.
Hang Soth, director of the PVNA, a commission under the Council of Ministers, said the heritage police are charged with protecting the site from looting and vandalism.
He also said that the Thai border crossing at Preah Vihear will remain closed until Thai nationalist fervor simmers down, a worry he blamed on opposition activists in Bangkok.
“We respect our neighbor and the neighboring nation respects us,” he said.
But in Thailand, bruised nationalism remains unappeased, and the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is suffering from the fallout.
On July 10, Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama stepped down after the Constitutional Court ruled that he had acted illegally in signing an agreement supporting Cambodia’s bid to have Preah Vihear temple listed as a World Heritage Site without the permission of parliament.
His move had been approved by Samak’s cabinet, which the court also decided had violated the Thai Constitution in acting without parliamentary consent, a verdict that observers said could lead to a major cabinet reshuffle.
In his emotional resignation speech, Noppadon maintained he had acted in good faith in signing the agreement with Cambodia.
“I insist I have done nothing wrong. I have not sold the country out. I love Thailand, and would not cause any damage to the country.”
UNESCO’s decision to list Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site sparked impromptu street parties throughout the country this week.
Former King Norodom Sihanouk has responded to Thai critics of the deal, saying that those claiming parts of the temple are in Thailand, including the main entrance, ignore “historic facts” and were bent on sabotaging Cambodian-Thai relations.
Meanwhile in Preah Vihear province, the party rages on.
“We have danced for three nights and we will continue,” Ley Eang, proprietress of a coffee shop near the temple site, said.
“We are excited with the temple’s registration. We expect it to bring more tourists and investors who will improve people’s living conditions here.”
Preap Tan, provincial governor of Preah Vihear, said he had overseen a massive celebratory ceremony the morning of July 10 that drew upwards of 5,000 people to T’beng Meanchey, the provincial capital.
“People have danced every night and held ceremonies everyday. No one told them to. They do it themselves,” he said.
“We will have fireworks for the next three nights and cheer the temple.”