Caught in the Thailand-Cambodia crossfire: Preah Vihear temple
In the two years since Preah Vihear temple was designated a World Heritage Site, repeated firefights across the Thailand-Cambodia border have taken a heavy toll on the ancient spiritual site.
Crossfire has killed at least five Cambodians and two Thais and injured dozens more soldiers and civilians since skirmishes broke out Friday. Each side blames the other for instigating the fight.
Yet another victim is the 1,000-year-old temple itself, which has withstood repeated shelling over the past 2-1/2 years since the temple was recognized as a World Heritage Site under Cambodian jurisdiction, joining the ranks of The Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu in Peru. It was among the most contentious heritage list applications ever, according to Giovanni Boccardi, UNESCO’s chief of unit for East Asia and the Pacific.
"Because of the border issue, I believe that we can rank it among the most difficult,” he told The Cambodia Daily in July 2008. “The question was not simply to demonstrate its value but to understand the implications of its inscription for management and ensure that the parties concerned would be ready to cooperate for its protection.”
More than two years later, it appears that the depth of animosity between Thailand and Cambodia was not fully understood, with politics fueling deadly firefights and damaging the temple. UNESCO today said that it plans to send a mission to the temple to assess the latest damage.
World Heritage recognition fuels passions
Its precarious location complicates the issue. Resting on the edge of a near half-mile-high cliff, one side of the rectangular temple looks out over a vast Cambodian plain – yet the temple itself is virtually inaccessible from Cambodia. Meanwhile, a paved road from Thailand leads up to the other side of the temple.
Despite the International Court of Justice ruling in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia (with former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson arguing on behalf of Phnom Penh), Thailand has never fully relinquished its claims. Called Prasat Phra Viharn in Thailand and Prasat Preah Vihear in Cambodia, the temple has even reeled Google Maps into the territorial dispute.
It was Cambodia’s successful bid in July 2008 to designate the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site that ignited tensions, with the first Thai and Cambodian soldiers killed in crossfire soon after. Thailand claims sovereignty over the 1.6-square-mile patch of surrounding land.
While UNSECO urged Thailand and Cambodia to jointly manage the site, the temple seems to have fallen into further disrepair. Firefights in October 2008 and April 2009 damaged more than 200 places around the temple, reported The Phnom Penh Post, with some holes up to 10 centimeters wide and two centimeters deep. Recent fighting only added to that toll.