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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cambodia stays cool

By Prasit Saengrungruang in Aranyaprathet

Despite concerns about a political backlash similar to the ransacking of the Thai Embassy in 2003, the Cambodian public and media are reacting calmly to the raging Thailand controversy over Preah Vihear temple.

"Cambodia has the right to seek a World Heritage status for Preah Vihear temple, and Thai people also have the right to protest against it," said Mr Sou Chamroeun, deputy director of Bayon television station in Phnom Penh .

"The Cambodian government and its people understand the issues raised by Thai politicians and they believe bilateral relations will not be harmed," Mr Sou said in a telephone interview with Perspective last Thursday.

The interview was conducted at the same time as the no-confidence debate in the Thai parliament, where the opposition Democrat party accused Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama of acting beyond his authority by signing a joint communique with Cambodia to have the ancient temple listed as a World Heritage site.

"The World Court has ruled that the temple belongs to Cambodia and everyone must respect its ruling," said Mr Sou, who is also a deputy chairman of the Cambodian Writers Association.

He dismissed fears about adverse reactions against the Thai people and businessmen living in Cambodia. "It is unlikely that there will be a repeat of the 2003 events," he said.

In January 2003, a Cambodian newspaper article falsely alleged that a Thai actress claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. Other Cambodian print and radio media picked up the report and furthered the nationalistic sentiment which resulted in riots in Phnom Penh on January 29. The Thai Embassy was burned and properties of Thai businesses were vandalised.

Mr Sou's views are shared by Mr Khieu Kanharith, the minister of information of Cambodia, who said any problems concerning the temple's boundaries should be settled by the joint Thai-Cambodian committee, which holds regular meetings.

In his opinion, both Thailand and Cambodia will benefit from tourism and related businesses if Preah Vihear temple is listed as a World Heritage Site. In fact, he noted, Thailand would gain more than Cambodia because most of the tourists would have to pass through Thailand in order to visit the ancient temple.

During the censure debate, the Democrats insisted the Thai government's support for Cambodia's unilateral listing of Preah Vihear would remove Thailand's right to have ownership of the temple reviewed. Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said the Cambodian map that Foreign Minister Noppadon had acknowledged could put Thailand at a disadvantage in talks to settle the borderline with Cambodia .

The Thai media have demanded to know why a number of Cambodians have moved into a disputed area near the temple. If these Cambodians stay there permanently, it might cause Thailand to lose part of the area in dispute.

On this issue, Mr Hourt Song Hak, a reporter for the Cambodian daily Koh Santipap, agreed that the Cambodian settlers must be moved out of the area. Other than that, it is the Cambodian government's right to seek the listing of Preah Vihear, which belongs to Cambodia, as a World Heritage Site, he told Perspective.

Interestingly, the Cambodian reactions to the controversy are typically in stark contrast to the nationalistic mood of Thai politicians, media and academics.

Thai historian Thepmontri Limpaphayom has suggested that if the Cambodian request is put on the agenda of the World Heritage Committee in Quebec early next month, Thailand's World Heritage Committee should resign to pressure other member states of the World Heritage Committee to postpone considering the issue.

Meanwhile, Supreme Commander Gen Boonsang Niampradit said the Royal Thai Air Force had already put its transport planes on standby in case it was necessary to evacuate Thais from Cambodia if the issue gets out of hand.

During the height of violence in Phnom Penh on Jan 29, 2003 - when rioters attacked the Thai Embassy and the premises of Thai-owned businesses, including Shin Corp, then owned by the family of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - the Thai government sent military aircraft to Phnom Penh to evacuate Thai nationals, while angry Thai protesters demonstrated outside the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen attributed the government's failure to prevent the attacks to incompetence, and noted that the riots were stirred up by extremists. The then chairman of the National Assembly, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, claimed that opposition leader Sam Rainsy had directed the attacks. Rainsy, instead, said he had tried to prevent the violence.

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