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Demilitarised zone established to protect shelled temple on border between Cambodia and Thailand

Thai army cedes ground but future of Cambodian World Heritage site remains unresolved

Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia

A demilitarised zone is to be established to protect the Preah Vihear temple, which sits 1,700ft up on a remote peak on the Thai-Cambodian border, following an order from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Clashes over the disputed site in February and April this year resulted in the deaths of 28 soldiers and civilians, and displaced some 85,000 Cambodian villagers as the 11th-century temple was shelled and the dispute spread along the border. Failure to reach agreement on the future of the World Heritage site at a Paris meeting of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee in May led the Thai government to threaten to withdraw from the World Heritage Convention.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Preah Vihear was Cambodian property. Simmering Thai disgruntlement turned into violent confrontation in 2008 when Unesco declared the temple a World Heritage site.

As The Art Newspaper went to press, a newly elected Thai government announced that it would comply with the ICJ’s July ruling and withdraw its troops from the area around the relic of the Khmer empire that had its capital at Angkor and once covered modern Cambodia, much of Thailand and parts of Vietnam. However, despite Bangkok’s assurances that it would replace troops with five police observers, the Thai army has indicated that it will not withdraw until Cambodia’s military announces a retreat from the zone. It is unclear what moves the Cambodians are making to comply.

Following a recent inspection, The Art Newspaper can confirm that the 800m-long temple suffered minor but prominent damage, including chips to the lintel of its lower gopura (an ornate tower found at the entrance), which appears on Cambodian banknotes, t-shirts and patriotic tat countrywide. Reports that two other Khmer border temples, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey, were damaged have not been confirmed.

For the Cambodians, Angkor and its temple satellites are at the heart of their cultural identity. “I have pride to be born has [sic] Khmer” reads a huge sign in English greeting anybody negotiating the military’s sandbagged bunkers for a day trip.

In recent years, Thai nationalists have been busy making political mischief over the issue and the country’s army is unwilling to be stared down. The failure of extremists to win power following the July elections seems to have defused tensions but a long-term solution has yet to emerge. The ICJ’s July ruling, which five of the16 judges opposed, included a decision to pursue a “request for interpretation” on its 1962 ownership judgment.

Both sides have been in contravention of the Hague Convention protecting cultural heritage during armed conflicts; the Cambodians by turning a cultural site into a military base, digging bunkers right against the base of Preah Vihear, and the Thais by shelling the site (with cluster bombs, according to some witnesses).

Although other cultural sites have also been flashpoints in recent decades—former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s territorial stroll around Temple Mount helped to launch the second intifada, and rioting over the disputed Babri mosque in Ayodhya, India, led to hundreds of deaths—the Preah Vihear events show the growing potency of world heritage designation in the popular consciousness.

Unesco is treading carefully. The cultural body has consistently refused requests for comment on Preah Vihear. Instead, director-general Irina Bokova issued a statement expressing her “deep regret” at the threat by Thai minister Suwit Khunkitti to denounce the 1972 World Heritage Convention. She said: “[The Convention] is not only the foremost international instrument for the preservation and protection of the world’s cultural and natural properties that have Outstanding Universal Value, but [is] also widely recognised as an indispensable tool to develop and encourage international co-operation and dialogue.”

Vasu Poshyanandana, the secretary-general of Icomos Thailand, the voluntary body advising Unesco on Thai heritage, told The Art Newspaper: “We always support the conservation and protection of world heritage sites, but only in the true scientific way, with quality and transparency, not politics.” He noted that the granting of World Heritage status to Preah Vihear obliged the Cambodians to produce a conservation management plan for the site, a plan that cannot be drawn up effectively without Thai co-operation. This seems unlikely, and Cambodia has failed to table a plan before successive World Heritage Committees. Bokova has denied media reports that it had been discussed at May’s meeting in Paris—reports that inflamed the Thais.

Poshyanandana has described any unilateral Cambodian management plan as “unacceptable”, but feels that the new Thai government will not withdraw its support for the key international heritage convention. “I’m quite sure that there [will] be no letter to Unesco to denounce the convention,” he said.

Preah Vihear is dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu deity associated with annihilation—but with the promised demilitarized zone, Shiva’s more benign incarnation is temporarily in the ascendant. An all-out war over cultural heritage has been averted for now.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Demilitarised zone to protect shelled temple'