Friday, June 29, 2007

UNESCO delay Preah Vihear listing

Sokhom and the author at Preah Vihear, January 2005.
I was disappointed to hear that UNESCO, at their recent meeting in New Zealand, have delayed a decision on whether to add the Preah Vihear temple to the World Heritage list for another year. The Cambodian government had applied for the second time to have the temple classified as a World Heritage site, after first applying three years ago. I gather that UNESCO have given into Thai lobbying and suggest that a future application be a joint one with Thailand, as the main entrance to the site is on Thai soil, which will upset a lot of people. Historically, the temple was the cause of a long-standing dispute over its ownership until 1962, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia. For me, I take a simplistic approach; Preah Vihear is a Cambodian temple, recognised by an international court, and now that access has opened up from the Cambodian side of the border, I don't agree that Thailand should be involved in any such application. There's one entrance to the temple via Thailand but that's it as far as any Thai leverage is concerned. I've visited the temple and whilst its overrun with Thai tourists on a daily basis, it is, and will always be, a Cambodian temple.

Whilst I'm on the subject, I'm currently reading a book called Climbing Back Up by Kim Chou Oeng, which contains his personal experiences during the Khmer Rouge years as well as a shocking description of a decision by the Thai authorities in 1979, to forcibly repatriate around 45,000 Cambodians. They were forced by Thai soldiers to climb down the steep slopes of the Dangrek mountainside at Preah Vihear through unmarked minefields as well as being shot at by both Thai and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Thousands died. This Associated Press article from 18 November 1999 recalls the period:

On a cliff in Cambodia old Preah Vihear temple has tragic recent past - by Grant Peck AP
Perched on a cliff top in northern Cambodia, Preah Vihear temple is a sacred 10th-century place dotted with profane reminders of the country's more recent tragic history. As tourists climb the 2,805 feet of crumbling stairs to the temple's four levels, they pass the wreckage of an army helicopter. At the summit, they share a spectacular view with two artillery pieces. The military hardware is left over from barely a year and a half ago, when the final 60 Khmer Rouge rebels occupying the location surrendered to government forces. Now, at a place where not that long ago the fate of uninvited visitors was death, tourists are coming again. Most of them - overwhelmingly Thai, many of them Buddhist monks - say they come to see the temple and the view, not the detritus of war. "When I see Preah Vihear and appreciate its beauty, my tiredness from climbing from bottom to top disappears," says Thanat Phukovareenukul, a Thai on his first visit. Cambodia was plunged into chaos and civil war after American bombings in 1970, and only in the past year or so has peace returned. An estimated 1.7 million people died. During the ensuing brief and brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands were killed in its attempt to create a peasant communist state.

Preah Vihear is a footnote to that terrible war, just as it is an archaeological footnote to the glory of the incomparable Angkor Wat temple complex that is Cambodia's proudest heritage.
It's even a footnote in international law - the object of a controversial 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that awarded it to Cambodia, even though topography suggested it should go to Thailand. The ruling accounts for the oddity of Preah Vihear being a Cambodian national landmark that is, for all practical purposes, accessible only from Thailand. The guerrillas who held the temple since 1993 rarely had to fire a shot in anger, because any attempt to dislodge them would have required a suicide attack up the steep, heavily mined Cambodian side.
But this little crag of Cambodia witnessed other horrors. The supposed remains of two Belgian tourists widely believed to have been abducted and killed by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in 1994 have been turning up over the past year, some of their bones offered for sale by traders hoping to collect a bounty. Investigators believe that other foolhardy tourists were similarly waylaid.

The Khmer Rouge don't hold a monopoly on cruelty, however. In 1979, Thailand was being flooded by refugees from Cambodia who fled as the Vietnamese army drove the Khmer Rouge from power. On June 8, 1979, the Thai army gathered thousands of desperate Cambodians from all over eastern Thailand and trucked them to the border at Preah Vihear. They were forced to march down the steep slopes back to their country. "The path down the mountains became steeper, the jungle thicker," British journalist William Shawcross wrote in describing the scene in his book "The Quality of Mercy." "Dozens, scores of people fell onto mines. Those with possessions had to abandon them to carry their children down. One group of refugees desperately pooled whatever valuables they had left, filled two buckets with them, and walked back up toward the Thai soldiers, carrying a white flag. The soldiers took the buckets and then shot the refugees." About 45,000 refugees were compelled to make the risky trek down the slope, Shawcross estimates. There are no definitive figures on casualties, but they are thought to have numbered in the thousands.

Visitors today are not so interested in such recent history, says Kraipon Royto, a lieutenant in a Thai paratrooper unit stationed near the temple. In his uniform, he serves as a volunteer tour guide. "The most popular question from tourists is if this temple was built at the same time as Angkor Wat," he says. Many historians think it predates its famous cousin. Supachai, a visiting Buddhist monk, is impressed that people so long ago could make such a beautiful structure. "We should be proud of the ancient wisdom which was so creative and powerful," he says. A handful of Cambodian soldiers, with their wives, are bivouacked at the temple, shyly selling cans of soda to visitors and collecting empties to sell as scrap. About 200 of their countrymen live and work at a market at the foot of the temple. Eng Tangheng sells exotic knickknacks and traditional medicines. "Whoever pays his respects to this temple will be lucky and be able to sell things better than his competitors," he says.

Footnote: I've visited Preah Vihear on two occasions, the first in March 2002, when I climbed to the temple, not by a road, but by crawling up the side of the mountain, hanging onto tree branches for leverage and hoping my footing didn't give way. It was a tough climb but I didn't have the fear of landmines or of soldiers shooting at me like the Khmer refugees did in 1979. Read about my visits in 2002 and 2005. Two other websites that you might find interesting are here and here.


Wanna said...

It's with great regret at the UNESCO's decision. However, I hope the government will apply again. And I don't support any involvement from Thailand.

Anyways, Andy, I'm so curious on what you're doing. Your blog is mostly about Cambodia, about your adventure in remote Cambodia, about Khmer temples,... Well, are you doing a research on Cambodia or on Indochina as whole?

Andy said...

Hello Wanna,
Thanks for asking. Essentially, I'm in love with Cambodia and all things Cambodian with a particular interest in its ancient temples and its culture & arts. However, head and shoulders above anything else, are the Cambodian people themselves. You can read about my travels throughout Cambodia on my website, I'm currently editing a new guidebook on Cambodia scheduled for publication in 2008, and there's more news on the horizon - but its not for public consumption just yet!
Regards, Andy

Anonymous said...

One question Andy are there any Khmer ancient temples in Thailand?

And thank you for your support of Khmer Culture, I wish you very will..,

Andy said...

Hi anon,
there are indeed some excellent Khmer temples in Thailand, particularly in the Isaan region. Its a place I really want to get to in the near future to see such temples as Phimai, Phnom Rung and Muang Tam, Ta Muen Thom, Ta Muen & Phnom Wan amongst others.

You can see them here:
Regards, Andy

Anonymous said...

Hi, Andy
I think you misunderstand in some point. In order to register world heritage site, Cambodian government have to create protection area called buffer zone which normally 5 km radial from Preah Vihear temple. As you have mentioned the main gate of the temple is at thai border, that means the buffer zone must include Thailand's territory. According to Unesco, in the buffer zone area can not build or change anything and has to be preserved in the state when the site become world heritage. I believe thailand can not accept this to let unesco come and tell that you can not do anything in this area anymore as it is a buffer zone for Preah Vihear. In my opinion, if Cambodia want to register and protect this temple with Unesco standard, they should first ask Thailand to accept the buffer zone before apply the site similar with many world heritage sites that situated near the border, for example Iguazu Fall of Argentina and Brazil or Maskau Park of Germany and Poland.

Andy said...

You have made a good point Anon. I wasn't aware of that finer point of detail but its obviously important to the decision. Indeed the two countries need to agree between them but they've both known this for a long time and yet they didn't resolve it before the UNESCO meeting. I wonder why. I get the feeling that to come to a mutual agreement won't be at all easy, so world heritage status may not be achieveable afterall, if those are the conditions laid down by UNESCO.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Andy
I agreed with you that the mutual agreement for Preah Vihear Temple was not easy, but I still quite optimistic. The sad thing is media did not report the real reasons why Unesco delay the registration and lead to some tension between two countries. Not only the buffer zone problem, I have learnt that in Thailand side has two small temples and ancient reservoir, traditionally part of Preah Vihear Complex which sadly devided by the border line. It must be sad to register only the main temple, not the whole COMPLEX (the same thing if unesco register only Westminster Palace and not Big Ben). I believe Thailand want to register Preah Vihear Complex which included small temples and reservoir in their territory as they will be abled to attract more visitors (money) to visit their part of world heritage site and that why I tell you i'm quite optimistic in this issue.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,
Thank you so much for your love with Cambodia.
Many people are very upset at the UNESCO's decision last year.
I think UNESCO can make an exception by changing their mind this year 2008. Forget about the buffer zone and let Preah Vihear temple be in the world heritage list in 2008.
If Thailand has thought long time ago that the smal temples and the reservoir should go together with Preah Vihear, Thailand should never ever divided the rest of Khmer temple in Thailand from Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.
Khmer temples in Thailand were connected to Khmer temples in Cambodia (Read Khmer temples history).
Khmer people claim Khmer temple is right, but Thai people claim Khmer temple???? It doesn't make sense at all. Those temples are totaly Khmer!!!