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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Military bungles over Preah Vihear

Diplomacy and ancient cultural sites are not the business of the Army; the southern insurgency is Published on January 26, 2008

The military's strong but belated reaction to Cambodia's nomination of the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear as a United Nations World Heritage site raised eyebrows in Bangkok as well as in Phnom Penh. It may be true that the Cambodian authorities last year unilaterally proposed to get the mountaintop temple on the Unesco list of historical and cultural sites of global significance, but the Thai Foreign Ministry has already protested the move and now both countries have been discussing the proposal to jointly list Preah Vihear. The ancient temple is located on Cambodian territory along with secondary ruins on the Thai side.

Cambodia and Thailand have for several years been cooperating on the restoration of the ancient temples - which are easily accessible from the Thai side of the border - as part of a joint tourism development. The timing of the protest by the Defence Ministry, at a time when Thailand is about to revert to democracy after some 16 months of military rule, raises the serious question as to whether there is an ulterior motive behind this uncalled-for protest.

On Thursday, the Defence Ministry accused the Cambodian government of trying to create "false historical evidence" with the intention of laying claim to the area adjacent to Preah Vihear, particularly the access road, which is located inside Thai territory. The Defence Ministry also asked the Foreign Ministry to lodge a formal protest with Phnom Penh. According to the Defence Ministry, Cambodia has unilaterally created a new boundary in order to claim sovereignty over the entire area, including the access road on the Thai side, and is campaigning for international support for this. The Defence Ministry spokesman went as far as saying that the incoming government should take the issue seriously, as Phnom Penh could once again incite anti-Thai sentiments among Cambodians living along the border - and that this could threaten Thailand's national security. He said the Army was on alert to protect Thailand's sovereignty.

Such dramatic posturing by the military comes across as ludicrous and bordering on hysterical. There have been no signs of any possibility of armed confrontation between the two countries over Preah Vihear. The dispute over the site was supposed to have been settled more than four decades ago.

Sure enough, Thai military leaders yesterday backtracked, dismissing what the Defence Ministry's spokesman, Lt-General Pichsanu Puchakarn, said at a press conference was an inaccurate representation of the situation.

Preah Vihear is still something of a sensitive issue in the relations between Thailand and Cambodia. It became a hot issue again early last year when Thailand blocked Phnom Penh's attempt to list it as a World Heritage site on the grounds that Cambodia's annex document claimed some parts in an "overlapping area" claimed by both countries. In 1962, following bitter legal wrangling between the two countries, the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Phnom Penh, which was given sovereignty over the temple compound. But the access route to the site is mainly on the Thai side of the border. Negotiations on the overlapping area are ongoing.

In clarifying the Defence Ministry's clumsy statements, Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said yesterday that Thailand and Cambodia had agreed since 2000 to have a joint boundary committee and would not make any alteration to the environment or physical structures in the area before the demarcation is completed.

In the meantime, the spokesman said both countries continued to discuss how best to get Preah Vihear listed as a World Heritage Site for joint tourism development and mutual benefit.

The two countries said there was no dispute, and Thailand agreed to provide technical assistance to train Cambodian workers to restore the temple prior to the proposal to list the site.

If this serves as a lesson to the military, it is this: the armed forces should learn to mind their own business and not over-extend themselves by venturing into unfamiliar territory - like diplomacy - that they know little about. Everybody knows by now that the Thai armed forces have been fighting a losing war against Islamic militants/Malay separatists in the deep South and their prestige is taking a beating. The priority for the military is to disengage itself from politics and put its own house in order.

The Nation


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