Thailand's controversial decision to withdraw from the World Heritage Convention is turning into an election issue that threatens to backfire on Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti, a leading academic says.
Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, yesterday said the listing of the Preah Vihear temple as a world heritage site was completed in 2008 but some quarters in the country had refused to accept the truth.
Mr Surachart, a security expert who has been studying issues related to the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, said Mr Suwit's decision to walk out of the World Heritage Convention could benefit him in the election.
"I wonder if the decision will help him [Mr Suwit] and his daughter [Suwipa] gain more votes in Bangkok," Mr Surachart said.
He said early polls had showed that the popularity of the Social Action Party, which Mr Suwit leads, was low, but recently it had been rising.
Mr Surachart said there were reports that Social Action had previously held up a plan to reclaim ownership of the Preah Vihear temple as part of the party's policy platform, although the plan was later scrapped.
Mr Surachart said the decision to pull out of the World Heritage Convention could have been expected.
Mr Surachart said that preparations could have been made to exploit the issue for political gain - particularly to seek votes from supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has been vociferous in its demands for withdrawal from the convention.
Mr Surachart said the government had long known about the Cambodian plan to manage the temple and its grounds, but the public had been given only half-truths.
He also said the government, the army and other concerned agencies had failed to produce evidence showing that the management plan for Preah Vihear encroached on the 4.6-square-kilometre disputed area claimed by Thailand. Claims of encroachment were not backed by solid evidence and this was the reason that Thailand had failed to gain support from most member nations of the World Heritage Committee.
"Walking out of Unesco has put the country in a bad light," Mr Surachart said.
Speaking after a cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr Suwit denied he would benefit from the decision to withdraw from the convention.
He said the decision was not premature and was intended to protect the country's dignity and territorial integrity.
During the past three years he had done everything he could to lobby and convince member nations that the management plan was a sensitive issue and that approving the plan could lead to problems.
He said a resolution relating to Preah Vihear adopted at the Paris meeting of the World Heritage Committee had allowed Cambodia to carry out maintenance and repair work for Preah Vihear and the areas surrounding it and to seek financial assistance from Unesco.
Mr Suwit said he found the resolution unacceptable because it could lead to the loss of Thai territory.
If Thailand had accepted the resolution, it would have given Cambodia a chance to use it to fight at the International Court of Justice for ownership of the disputed areas around the temple.
Mr Suwit said he had discussed the matter closely with Foreign Ministry officials who accompanied him to the WHC meeting before making the decision.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday said Unesco director-general Irina Bokova had written to explain to him that the WHC meeting in Paris had not formally discussed Cambodia's management plan and to ask Thailand to reconsider its decision.
Mr Abhisit reiterated he would let the next government take up the matter.
Addressing about 2,000 people at a campaign rally outside City Hall yesterday evening, Mr Abhisit insisted the government's decision to withdraw from the World Heritage Convention was meant to protect Thai territory.