Monday, June 23, 2008

Cambodia closes Preah Vihear

Fears Thai protests will spill over the border

Cambodia closed the Preah Vihear ruins yesterday amid worries Thai protests over Phnom Penh's plan to propose the ancient temple for World Heritage listing will spill across the border. The issue was a major point raised during yesterday's general debate by senators who attacked Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his government for supporting the Cambodian move.

Outside the parliament, opponents plan to ask the Administrative Court today to nullify the cabinet's endorsement of Cambodia's map of Preah Vihear and a joint declaration to be presented to Unesco.

Senator Kamnoon Sitthisamarn will lead protestors to petition the court.

M.R. Priyanandana Rangsit, deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, will also hand a protest letter to the office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in Bangkok. The letter signed by 300 elite and socially recognised people calls on the UN agency not to accept the temple as a World Heritage site.

The government on June 17 approved the new map drawn by Cambodia, which defines the temple's boundary to be proposed to the World Heritage Committee during its meeting in Quebec starting on June 2, placing it inside Cambodia.

Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama also signed a joint statement with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, supporting the application, soon after Bangkok agreed to the map.

The closure of the temple came after Cambodian officials held talks to assess the situation.

About 200 Thai protesters gathered near the temple yesterday. Many of them had completed a 110-km walk protesting against Phnom Penh's move. The group began the ''Dharma Walk'' in Muang Si Sa Ket and arrived in Kantharalak district, which adjoins the temple, on Sunday.

Their demonstration near Preah Vihear added to the worries of Cambodian officials, who in recent weeks have seen growing protests in Thailand against the listing of the temple.

Cambodian officials said the temple, known as Khao Phra Viharn in Thailand, will reopen to tourists when the protest rally ends.

Protest leader Saman Sri-ngam warned the protest would continue ''until we get our Khao Phra Viharn back and expel Cambodian villagers who have encroached on the Thai border.''

They sang the Thai national anthem and a patriotic song Rao Su (We Will Fight) during their rally. Some yelled at Cambodian villagers, demanding they leave the Thai border.

A group of monks, led by Phra Maha Boontueng, also joined the rally. They offered prayers in support of the protesters.

A Thai military source said the army had been informed of the closure of Preah Vihear, but had not contacted Phnom Penh on the issue.

The source said some officers agreed with the protest over the encroachment by Cambodians who built shops and other structures.

''The villagers well know that the area belongs to Thailand, but past governments have done nothing about it,'' the source said.

In the Senate debate, Phetchaburi Senator Sumol Sutawiriyawat roundly criticised the government over its handling of the Preah Vihear issue, including the failure to jointly propose the listing of the ancient temple as a World Heritage site with Cambodia.

In his defence, Mr Samak insisted Thailand will not lose any territory to Cambodia by approving the Cambodian map and the joint statement.

He stressed the temple is inside Cambodia, as a result of the International Court of Justice's ruling in 1962, and criticised those trying to stir up people to try and reclaim it.

Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda has reacted to the Preah Vihear issue in a short reply to a letter sent to him on Thursday calling on the government and civic groups to help protect Thai territory. It was handed to him by chief adviser to the Supreme Command Gen Pathompong Kesornsuk.

The letter said approval of the new map of Preah Vihear would lead to legal complications when Thailand and Cambodia hold talks on the overlapping areas along their border in the future.

In his reply on June 21 Gen Prem replied the move ''is a way to return a favour to the nation''.

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