A Change of Guard

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Friday, 6 August 2010

Temple plan battle will be tough

SPECIAL REPORT: Thailand will have to do better if it wants to beat Cambodia next year

Published: 6/08/2010
Bangkok Post

Better preparation is needed if Thailand is to win the fight with Cambodia over its management plan for Preah Vihear temple.

Thailand celebrated a small victory last week when it managed to persuade the 21-member World Heritage Committee (WHC), meeting in Brazil, to defer a decision on the plan to its meeting next year in Bahrain.

It was the second year in a row that the issue had been postponed.

Cambodia is required to submit a management plan for endorsement after the temple was listed as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2008.

Asda Jayanama, a member of the Thai delegation, predicts the fight with Cambodia will be long and hard.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, he said Thailand would block the plan again next year if it still involved a disputed border area next to the temple, and if the land was still not demarcated.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had promised that Thailand would do better next time.

It will set up a national committee to handle the issue, to be led by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti.

Thailand also needs to form alliances with key members of Unesco and the WHC to support its position, said Mr Asda, who was appointed by the government less than two weeks before the WHC meeting in Brazil.

Thailand wants to end the dispute over an overlapping border area around the temple before it considers the management plan. Cambodia's management zone involves part of the disputed territory to the east of the temple, said Mr Asda, a former ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

Thailand also needs to appoint an ambassador to Unesco to handle the issue and lobby other Unesco members, instead of using the ambassador to France as its contact point, Mr Asda said.

Brazil tried to break the deadlock between Thailand and Cambodia, without success.

Mr Asda went to Brazil before Mr Suwit and the other Thai delegates to explain the Thai position to Brazil's Culture Minister Joao Luiz Silva Ferreira, who chaired the WHC meeting.

The next target for the Thai team led by Mr Suwit is to convince the 19 other members of the WHC to support its cause.

WHC members remain split on who to back, Mr Asda said.

But Mr Suwit told the prime minster that Thailand was an underdog with most members inclined to back Cambodia, as it started lobbying for its plan long before the meeting took place.

Thailand also focused on the delayed distribution of the management plan, which put it at an disadvantage.

The plan was supposed to be distributed six weeks before the meeting. But it was sent to WHC members only on July 27, one day before the meeting was due to discuss the issue.

It was not a full report as the WHC members received only a five-page summary and a map showing the management zone.

Worried about a possible collapse of the meeting due to the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, the Brazilian chairman tried to find a way out by asking the Thai and Cambodian sides to settle their differences.

Each side had three representatives at the meeting. The Thai side was led by Mr Suwit, with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An leading his delegation.

The atmosphere was tense, as neither side was prepared to give way.

As there was no chance of a compromise, host Brazil devised a seven-point draft decision.

It consulted Cambodia first and then called the two countries together for further discussions.

Several parts of the draft were revised after Thailand objected.

One of the rejected clauses was that the WHC "further welcomes the steps taken by the State Party [Cambodia] towards the establishment of an international coordinating committee for the sustainable conservation of the property".

The word "property" was rejected because it would include the disputed area in addition to the temple, Mr Asda said.

The compromise was read out to other WHC members on July 28.

The thrust of the compromise was the WHC's decision to postpone consideration of the management plan to the meeting next year.

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