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Why Is Communication about Preah Vihear so Difficult?

By: Norbert Klein Posted: February-14-2011 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 703

Since The Mirror was started in 1997, we made an effort to “mirror” and translate all major trends in the Khmer print media, government and opposition, traditional and anti-traditional ideas, the economy and the culture.

One goal – by “mirroring” different positions – was always to encourage dialogue, and the Comments section on this page is such an invitation to exchange opinions, especially when there are conflicts which require solutions.

Such exercises becomes most fruitful when opinions expressed are presented stating how they relate to facts. That is why I recently quoted from the Documentation Center of Cambodia:

“…a society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history.”

As a result of the effort to provide a variety of information – some of which had, to my surprise, never been published and made known widely in Cambodia (I dare to say so, because public calls in The Mirror to identify such publications, in case I had missed them, never identified such sources) – I was accused, to be financed by the Cambodian People’s Party to discredit international efforts to strengthen democracy, or to be a supporter of the Sam Rainsy Party to fight the CPP, or to be a friend of the present Thai prime minister – “Norbert Klein, this British asshole.” Actually, none of these organizations support The Mirror – nobody pays me at present for producing The Mirror, apart from the $100 or up to $200 in donations per year which readers – up to 10,000 visits per month – donate through the facilities at the right upper corner of this page:

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The fact that political discussion is so easily derailing into suspicions and accusations, disregarding facts of history, worries me deeply. Without serious public political dialogue it is difficult to find widely acceptable solutions.

There were never so many public Comments in response to one edition of The Mirror than after 8 February 2011: “Someone Explain Why” – Fighting Again at the Border, in additions to direct mails I received. I would like to take the opportunity to respond here to some.

“The news report over the issue between Cambodian and Thai armed conflict should rest on impartial analysis. I think the Mirror is pro-Thai government.”

Frankly, I am happy to know that there is such an opinion expressed – how else could I know? But I do not know how to respond to it. I would have appreciated to know why the reports in The Mirror are considered to be not “impartial” – with specific references to what I wrote. Other readers expressed the opposite opinion, with appreciation, especially because of the documentation and the references provided.

As for some information publicly available – the only information I have – it is changing, and sometimes there are contradicting reports, and when it is contested it is not easy to confirm, from day to day, what is correct or not. Even to say what is pro-Thai or pro-Cambodia is contested. Example: The Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand and the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia on the Survey and Demarcation of Land Boundary, signed in 2000. This is obviously an extremely important document which could have prevented the conflicts since 2008, had it been used intensively. This document exists in English, Khmer, and Thai, but who, in the Cambodian public, has seen the text? Were there urgent requests in the Khmer media, either in 2000, or after 2008, to make the contents of this Memorandum and the results so far, publicly known? It was in The Mirror here: Memorandum on Cambodian-Thai Border Issues on 24.1.2011. So far I have not been able to find information when the general Cambodia public had access to the contents of this Memorandum.

To ask these questions – is this pro-Thai or pro-Cambodia? Because there are some more details to be considered:

“Concerning the MOU in 2000, it gives more advantage to Thailand to create contested area and blocked Cambodia bid to have world heritage status to Preah Vihear. ”

I am not aware that the Memorandum and details of related negotiations were discussed much in public – though there were often references to the existence of this Memorandum. That is why I desperately was trying, for a long time without success, to find the text in Cambodia, before I easily got it from a friend in Thailand.

And the present situation: While the Thai government has always considered this Memorandum as the basis for talks about border questions, the Yellow Shirt group, for a long time supporting the government, but now no longer, requests the unilateral canceling of the Memorandum, because they think it is too favorable for Cambodia (as it also mentions the maps of 1904 and 1907). But the newest information I read today on the Internet said that the Cambodian side will not attend the next meeting of the Joint Border Commission, which had been agreed to be held towards the end of February 2011.

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“I do not expect a perfect performance of Cambodian Government. It is very easy to find out these kind of fault, because it is not as sophisticate as Thai Government.
But the Mirror should look at the route of the problem. Why Thailand has sent soldiers to occupied area in the first place in 2008? Cambodia quickly asked UN for help, but with pressure from Asean, the problem was kept for bilateral talk. And with thousand of soldiers put for confrontation, it is hard to avoid fighting.”

When I try to collect information and put it together, it is always with the concern to provide concrete data, how to avoid further escalation so as to find agreements and peace. And in this context no sophistication is needed, but simple clarity.

Some days ago, when Prime Minister Hun Sen and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon spoke over the phone, it was reported that the Prime Minister said there is war at the border, and the Secretary General said there are armed clashes – this exchange of saying “war” and responding “armed clashes” was reported to have been repeated several times. How could the UN Secretary General use the word “war” when both countries are UN members? The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Article 24, says, “The King shall declare war after approval of the Assembly and the Senate.” How have these two legislative institutions dealt with the Preah Vihear UNESCO questions? I was, in 2008, never able to find the related large documentation in Khmer – it existed openly and easily accessible in Arab, English, French, and Spanish.

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“Why Thailand has sent soldiers to occupied area in the first place in 2008?”

The first problem, after the declaration of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, with the support of the Thai government, occurred when a group of five or six Thai civilians (also a monk among them?) entered from the Thai side while the entry was closed – they were apprehended and sent back. Only after that, ten Thai uniformed persons without arms entered into the contested “buffer zone” – an area which Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and the Head of the Cambodian Border Committee Var Kim Hong had called so, in a joint document signed with UNESCO and Thailand. If the account is not correct – I am always prepared to be corrected with better information than I have seen.

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“Just a small portion of border that is supposed to be clear with the international court verdict since 1962, but still have conflict.”

The Thai government was reluctant in 2007 about the Cambodian plans for Preah Vihear because the borders in the area are not clearly established, but Thailand fully supported the listing in 2008, preparing the UNESCO meeting on the basis of the Joint Communique of 18 June 2008, signed by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and the Thai and UNESCO representatives (in The Mirror several times since mid 2008). It says:

4. Pending the results of the work of the Joint Commission for Land Boundary (JBC) concerning the northern and western areas surrounding the Temple of Preah Vihear, which are identified as N. 3 in the map mentioned in paragraph 1 above, the management plan of these areas will be prepared in a concerted manner between the Cambodian and Thai authorities in conformity with the international conservation standards with a view to maintain the outstanding universal value of the property. Such management plan will be included in the final management plan for the Temple and its surrounding areas to be submitted to the World Heritage Centre by 1st February 2010 for the consideration of the World Heritage Committee at its 34th session in 2010;
5. The inscription of the Temple of Preah Vihear on the World Heritage List shall be without prejudice to the rights of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Kingdom of Thailand on the demarcation works of the Joint Commission for Land Boundary (JBC) of the two countries.

Was this, at that time, made public widely in Cambodia? That Cambodian authorities had agreed to elaborate, together with the Thai authorities, a “management plan for the Temple and its surrounding areas”? It is a pity that there are so many statements in Cambodia which take the 1962 decision on the temple – “For these reasons, by nine votes to three, finds that the Temple of Preah Vihear is situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia” – as also having solved the border in the region. Had the Cambodian government taken the position that everything related to the border is solved, there would not have been any need neither for the 2000 border Memorandum, nor for the Communique of June 2008.

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“While the Unesco approved the Cambodian government application, it was solely on Cambodian application and the joint communique of 18 June 2008 was not used, because latter Thai Foreign Minister withdrew his support and canceled the communique. As far as the relation between Thailand and Cambodia is concerned, I feel that the Mirror is biased toward Thailand.”

This information about the procedures take is only partly correct. The Joint Communique of 18 June 2008 was the final preparatory document for the World Heritage Committee, less than one month before the World Heritage Committee met and decided on 8 July 2008. The Joint Communique cleared the way for the preparation of the meeting. But the Thai signature had to be withdrawn because the Thai Foreign Minister was made to resign, because he took decisions on matters of national sovereignty without parliamentary approval.

Decisions on the elaboration of a management plan to be elaborated together with Thailand were, however still made part of the UNESCO nomination of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site.

Is it to be biased to point to these documented facts?

I was embarrassed that a person criticizing me as pro-Thai wrote that I should understand that the claim on only the Temple itself – as in the map of 18 June 2008 – and not on the buffer zones, to be decided later, was only a trick to get the Thai agreement. I never thought, and I do not think, that the Cambodian high ranking representatives were playing tricks with these documents. But I think it would be helpful for defusing some tensions, if there would be some simple explanation about what the text meant, at the time when it was signed, before the Thai parliamentary authorities reminded their own government not to overstep their limited authority, and to respect the constitution of their own country. Therefore the Joint Communique, the last preparatory document before the decision, had to be withdrawn briefly before the final act.

This discussion is painful. Because even when I try to state the different points which are clear, I get also responses which speculate about what I seem to be thinking. “You seem to analyze the problem through what is clearly seen and not to look at the motivation behind it.”

I try to see also the motivations behind – but if we cannot use what is clearly seen, I am at a loss how communication can lead to understanding.

The Cambodian government has repeatedly – together with the governments of Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam – rejected efforts of other ASEAN governments to propose solutions for perceived problems in some ASEAN countries. But the Cambodian position normally was: No interference into internal affairs!

Now there is a reversal, with appeals to the UN Security Council – to establish a buffer zone at the border, and to send UN peacekeepers. On Monday, 14.2.2011, the foreign ministers of both countries will meet at the UN in New York, and also the Secretary General of ASEAN, and the Indonesian foreign minister who recently visited the region, will be there.

Looking forward to the results and responses: to what can be seen clearly, and to what may be the motivations behind. But solutions can be expected only from what will have been clearly agreed upon. Why? Because of this fact:

“…a society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history.”

Norbert KLEIN

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 703 – Sunday, 13.2.2011
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror carries regular reports and comments from Cambodia - More about The Mirror

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