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Temple tension mounts

Temple tension mounts

CAMBODIAN and Thai officials held abortive talks on the sidelines of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Brazil yesterday in a last-ditch attempt to resolve a dispute over Cambodia’s management plan for Preah Vihear temple.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that during the 45-minute meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and Thai Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti reiterated their governments’ stances on the temple listing.

He said the Thai official demanded joint management of Preah Vihear, and that Sok An repeated Cambodia’s long-standing opposition to such an arrangement.

“There was no significant result from the meeting. The meeting focused on the issue of sovereignty,” Phay Siphan said, but Cambodia “welcomed” UNESCO’s attempt to broker a resolution to the conflict.

The 21-member WHC, which is meeting until Tuesday, was to note the submission of Cambodia’s management plan for Preah Vihear late yesterday, and the lead-up to the session has prompted a fresh flare-up in the long-standing temple dispute.

Thailand has opposed Preah Vihear’s listing as a World Heritage site since before its July 2008 inscription, claiming sovereignty over a 4.6-square-kilometre area adjacent to the temple.

On Wednesday, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva threatened that if the WHC approved the Cambodian plan, Bangkok would consider withdrawing from UNESCO.

The Associated Press also quoted Abhisit as saying that the committee should act as a “purveyor of peace and culture, not of tension and conflicts”, and that the Thai army was ready to defend the country’s sovereignty.

Cambodian officials, however, have dismissed the Thai claims, pointing to a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that handed the temple – and surrounding lands – to Cambodia.

Phay Siphan said the Thai threats of noncooperation with UNESCO were an “insult” to the world body.

“Thailand will not gain if they walk out of the WHC because Thailand has many tourism sites [listed as] World Heritage sites,” he said. “The obligation of Cambodia is to implement the decision from the WHC, and we have done that since 2008.” He described the management of Preah Vihear as an “absolutely technical matter”.

UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams said yesterday that the dispute between Cambodia and Thailand was “a strictly bilateral” issue, and that the WHC had no mandate to address it.

She also said that Thai talk of the WHC “approving” the Cambodian management plan was misguided.

“The World Heritage Committee does not adopt or approve any plans. All they can do is note that the management plan has been submitted,” she said. Williams added that all member states had the right to withdraw from UNESCO, but that Thailand’s potential withdrawal would not affect the status of any of its World Heritage sites.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THE BANGKOK POST

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