27 February 2011

Thailand and Cambodia War over World Heritage Site

For two weeks this month Thai and Cambodian troops repeatedly clashed with tanks, infantry and aircraft over a disputed border territory that includes the UNESCO-listed Preah Vihear temple complex.

Preah Vihear (Wikimedia)
The spectacular temple complex is one of the architectural masterworks of the medieval Khmer Empire, but was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice. Thailand never accepted the judgment, and considered 2008 Cambodia's nomination of Preah Vihear to the World Heritage List as a provocation. The temple complex was inscribed by UNESCO in July 2008 in a dizzying climate of mass demonstrations, rival Buddhist prayer marches, and military build-ups along the border. High tension ahd sporadic fighting has followed, including firefights in October 2008, January and April 2010, and again this month. The video, from February 7, is terrifying. Apparently some temple buildings have been hit by artillery.

Unpacking this story is a headache for the non-expert (me): the wikipedia article has much more detail on the conflict. The temple itself was constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries and was the spiritual heart of the Khmer Empire, which had its capital at the much more famous city of Angkor, which was the world's largest preindustrial city. The empire was majority Hindu in this period, though neither Cambodia or Thailand has a large Hindu population today. The temple complex has had a gory recent history: it was the site of the last stand of the Republican forces resisting the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and a massacre of up to 10,000 Cambodian refugees by the Thai army in 1979 after their forcible repatriation from camps in Thailand. Thai troops forced over 40,000 refugees over the steep cliffs of the temple onto the minefields below.

Preah Vihear certainly has 'outstanding universal value' in the sense of the World Heritage List. But I find it strange that the World Heritage Committee was so tone deaf to the modern tragedies and current nationalist tension when they chose to inscribe the site. So far from serving as a tool for increasing international understanding, inscription provided a flashpoint for nationalist feelings. Bazookas and high-caliber bullets are bad for ancient architecture.

This raises an important questions for UNESCO: surely there are sites whose preservation and appreciation would be advanced by being kept off of official lists of cultural heritage? And now that the fighting has started, why is the site not on the list of heritage in danger? Situations like this are ones which the UN system has few tools with which to cope.

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