The announcement on Friday from Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti that Thailand might quit its membership of the Unesco World Heritage Convention over a draft agreement on issues regarding the management plan for Preah Vihear temple seems ill-considered to say the least. Aside from the fact that the threat seems childish at a glance, withdrawing from the world heritage body would be harmful to Thailand's national interests. The world heritage stamp brings visitors to the country and it also assures that the sites will be well maintained and guarded against neglect and possible exploitation. There are five official world heritage sites in Thailand and a dozen or more proposed sites.
The timing of the threat and the reasoning behind it are curious. The draft report was prepared by the World Heritage Centre because Thailand and Cambodia could not agree to the wording of reports drawn up separately. Mr Suwit, who is leading the Thai delegation at a meeting of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) in Paris, said Thailand would quit the convention merely if the report is forwarded for consideration to the WHC. That amounts to acknowledging defeat very early in the game. In explaining his actions Mr Suwit mystifyingly said that words in the draft like ''restoration'' and ''repair'' may be used in the future to refer to repairs of damages in attacks by Thai troops. He wants these words replaced with ''protection'' and ''conservation''.
Thailand does seem to be at a definite disadvantage in the negotiations which centre around disputing claims to territory around the ancient Preah Vihear temple.
This is largely due to a series of tactical errors from Thai negotiators, such as the one by Mr Suwit on Friday, which must be seen as overly defensive by the WHC and international observers. This in turn may be because Cambodia probably has the stronger case.
Even if Thailand does ultimately lose out in the battle over the Preah Vihear buffer zone, it would be a mistake to quit the WHC. It would be an even bigger mistake to quit before the issue has been decided.