Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Abhisit takes the low road

Bangkok Post

The government's decision to walk away from the World Heritage Convention is troubling on several levels. The group is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and Unesco has always been an unreliable arm of the UN. But the reason given by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to quit the WHC seems more of a technical problem than an outright threat to the nation. Indeed, Mr Abhisit's initial attempt to explain why Thailand is pulling all support from the convention is confusing and unconvincing.

According to Mr Abhisit, the members of the World Heritage Committee, meeting in Paris, are determined to move ahead on a plan by Cambodia to manage the Preah Vihear temple. A few words in the draft version of the plan are troubling. The Cambodian-written submission says that the temple needs "restoration" and "repair". The prime minister says that these references might be construed to mean that Thailand had damaged Preah Vihear, maybe during the recent and deadly military battles in the southern area of Si Sa Ket. But Mr Abhisit's justification of a walkout over this possibility is as vague as the wording itself.

The premier said the actual decision to walk away from the WHC was made by the minister of natural resources and environment. Suwit Khunkitti has performed admirably and for a very long time over this issue. When he phoned Mr Abhisit in Bangkok to tell him of the walkout, Mr Abhisit backed him. Shortly afterwards, the Cambodian proposal was amended, and the reference to repair was removed. Too late, Mr Abhisit and Mr Suwit claim.

Unesco chief Irina Bokova said she regrets the Thai decision, and hopes the government will reconsider. That is a problem because of the election, and Mr Abhisit has washed his hands of the issue and handed it to the next prime minister. Ms Bokova claimed that the Cambodian plan for temple management never was discussed formally.

The recent encounters with the World Heritage organisation, and indeed with Cambodia, are sadly reminiscent of the 1962 legal case. Back then, Thai authorities were certain that the country's case for ownership of Khao Phra Viharn was obvious. Contemporary media reports show that MR Seni Pramoj was in a positively jaunty mood as he set off for the International Court of Justice. Everyone could see that the temple was clearly in Thailand. What could go wrong? Cambodia, on the other hand, went to the World Court with fiercely prepared advocates, who convinced the judges that the law was on their side.

The public presentation of this year's case to both the ICJ and the World Heritage Committee meeting has been woefully inadequate.

In one speech last year, Mr Abhisit called on the nation to support the government over the issue but presented no case to the public. Instead, he backtracked and flip-flopped. Only last February, on his regular television talk, the premier said Thailand would never quit the World Heritage Committee. He said Unesco supported the Thai position, and that the WHC would surely reject the Cambodian plan to manage the temple and its grounds.

When the going got tough, Thailand got going. It lowers the respect for Thailand in world opinion. It even gave Pheu Thai one more issue with which to criticise the government. Thailand now is out in the cold while the WHC discusses the future of Preah Vihear temple. Thailand must rejoin the Unesco group, to protect the country's interests.

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