Preah Vihear Phra Viharn

If I was the temple I would probably hang my head in shame and wish I was undiscovered rather than witness current squabbles over a few tourist dollars.

Back in 2000, when MOU on border demarcation was signed, things looked very promising. Temple was firmly on a tourist map, there was an agreement between two countries that no visa was required to visit it, business was booming, albeit on the Thai side where most of the tourists were coming from.

World Heritage listing should have made the future even brighter but no, Cambodians got too greedy, they wanted the temple all to themselves so they developed a new theory according to which the only correct way to pay homage to the ancient site is to climb up the cliff and people coming the easy way, via nice, paved roads on the Thai side are infidels. Even the grand staircase was declared as a perversion of the original design.

However ridiculous, Cambodians got French academic help on the issue and, armed with this new code of worshiping the ancestors, they decided to cut off any “heritage” left on the Thai side of the border.

The listing process got stalled, Thais loudly protested and walked off the meetings, then Noppadon came to the rescue, fired Thai chief negotiator and made a deal with Cambodians where they got all they wanted in exchange for his support. PAD got the wind of the secret deal and the rest is history, as they say.

Untangling this knot now is an impossible task.

On one hand it’s great that the government opened public discussions so that all sides know what is going on, on the other hand if there was any chance of quiet diplomacy and making deals acceptable to both Cambodia and Thailand, it is virtually nil now.

On one hand it’s nice that the public is involved, on the other hand it also means that there are a lot of unnecessary flames flying around and intelligence and knowledge are replaced by screaming and posturing.

It’s somewhat easier on the Cambodian side since Thailand need to deal only with Hun Sen but on Thai side there are several political groups that can exploit the issue and national interest be damned.

So far we have only PAD. Ok, two PADs – one, hardline group of protesters, lead by Veera Somkwamkid, a well known nationalist, the other, moderate group is representing PAD in general.

Abhisit was quick to frame the debate so that the conclusion would be “our view of the national interest is the same, we just have disagreements on how to achieve it”. He sidelined Veera’s group and set a new standard of public, televised debates over contentious issues.

Whether it was to neutralize PAD opposition or genuinely advance the issue remains to be seen, looks like two birds with one stone so far.

Still, there are too many angles to the problem to address them on TV.

Two years ago it looked like a business disagreement over tourist revenue. Now it’s much much more than that and the potential gains or losses are not worth fighting over anymore.

I don’t know what Cambodians were thinking. It’s no Angkor Wat, relatively few tourists would consider it worth taking a two day trip over jungle roads. Access on Thai side is a lot easier but then again, it’s a day trip only, if you want to stay overnight you can take pictures of the sunrise or sunset but that’s basically it.

It’s not a gateway to Cambodia the way Poipet is. It could have been but not if Cambodians decided to go alone. Thailand even build them the road from Poipet to Angkor Wat but they behave like ingrates and they can forget any help in developing Cambodian side of Phra Viharn if they don’t change their stance, and if they say they don’t need it – they still need tourists coming in from Thailand, they will never have enough of their own.

My point is the tourism potential of the site is rather limited and Thailand could have just let it go but now the bigger border issues stole the light and they are unresolvable.

Cambodians assert that World Heritage listing doesn’t affect border demarcation but the situation is different on the ground where they have been moving settlers into the disputed territory ever since MOU signing, they have even built an access road there. PAD claims that their site management map takes some 50 rai of Thai territory. I don’t know if it’s true but Cambodians really treat the adjacent land as its own already.

Right now Thai nationalists demand removal of the settlers, by force, if necessary, temple itself doesn’t concern them very much.

And it doesn’t stop there – Cambodians have sights on several other temple ruins on the disputed territories, and so do Thais. Going hardline over this and not conceding an inch of Thai soil is implausible, deals need to be made here and there to keep overall peace but Thai government’s hands are constrained by public reactions at home.

Then there’s maritime borders and oil exploration zones, that’s where the real money is, and they can’t move along either unless two countries cooperate.

Too many things depend on Phra Viharn now – border in the temple vicinity, border issues elsewhere, and shared oil drilling in the Gulf.

There’s no way it can be resolved if it comes in this bundle.

The best outcome would be if Abhisit manages to separate the temple listing from all those other demands and gets Cambodian support for joint management, with revenue sharing acceptable to both sides.

Maybe it should be designated as a special no visa, no national tax zone, managed by an entity with representatives of both countries collecting it’s own taxes and splitting the profits 50/50. I mean if a tourist spends 3,000 baht in a hotel on the Thai side, part of this money goes to Cambodia, too. There could be plans for casinos and may even an airport and appeals to international investors to make worthwhile.

When I think how it could be set up it looks like a huge headache but I believe it’s the only fair way to develop Pra Viharn.

Alternatively Thailand can just sit it out – it’s not losing much from not developing it, Cambodians need it a lot more. They will come around, eventually, when they realize that Thais can stall their plans indefinitely.

And that’s where Thai nationalists come in handy – the government can always site their demands as a reason to keep military presence that scares away the tourists. Border skirmishes at regular intervals is all Thailand needs to make its point.

It’s not kosher but it’s politics – agree on joint management and all problems will go away.

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