“Lost in Translation?” – or Why Is there Not More Timely and Clear Information? – Sunday, 5.7.2009

Posted on 6 July 2009. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 619 |

The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 619

The past week had again a lot of events in the field of interpreting and applying the law, and not enforcing it in other cases. During the week, it was time and again difficult to understand or to explain what happened, in a country living under the guidance of a Constitution which declares that Cambodia is

based on a multi-party liberal democratic regime guaranteeing human rights and the respect of law.

Without elaborating again, only a brief reference:

That now a member of the National Assembly may face a defamation suit by the vice-president of the National Assembly, because he criticized the opinion of his fellow parliamentarians and their decision sounds almost as if the very principle of the constitutionally guaranteed multi-party reality – where members if different parties have different opinions – is being challenged.

There are more instances where it is difficult to follow the publicly presented arguments. When a Deputy Prime Minister defended his actions to initiate prosecution against a newspaper editor who had reported that electric lighting is being installed in Angkor Wat by drilling holes into ancient stones (while it was later denied that any such drilling happened) the Minister presented the argument that such action against wrong information was to avoid chaotic confusion in the public. Did this imply a criticism of the Prime Minister, who had, at that time, as is well remembered, also shared the (wrong) information of a newspaper about a (non-existent) statement by a Thai actress? Reminding the public that wrong information relating to Angkor Wat had led to the anti-Thai riots in 2003, the Deputy Prime Minister explained – weeks later – that the installation of some electric equipment at Angkor Wat was only a test for later plans. Had this explanation been made public at the time of the first controversial news reporting, chaos and confusion – and a lawsuit now receiving wide international attention – could probably have been avoided.

It is reported almost daily that the military tensions between Cambodian and Thai troops around the Preah Vihear temple are still at a dangerous level – in spite of the meetings between both Prime Ministers and others. But the wording of the arguments reported in different media are often not very clear in detail.

The Prime Minister is quoted to have said that the ammunition that exploded at Takhmao was to be sent to the border with Thailand to protect the territorial integrity. Public emotion often assumes that Thailand now claims the Preah Vihear temple. There are no statements publicly known that the Thai government is trying to reverse the 1962 ruling of the International Court of Justice which says that the temple of Preah Vihear is on Cambodian territory.

As far as the temple of Preah Vihear is concerned and the ground on which it stands, the territorial integrity is not contested.

But there is a piece of land around of a few square kilometers which are contested. This is known since 1962. This led to the initial military confrontations in 2008, when Thai troops entered the contested zones, considered in Cambodian statements as “invading Cambodia.” Similar arguments on the other side consider the contested zones as (contested) Thai territory. This situation will continue as long as both governments have not yet agreed on the final borderline.

In the last round of new tensions, three different problems are often mixed up in public reporting:

  • Territorial integrity – The Cambodian Prime Minister is quoted to have said: “We cannot have joint ownership over our separate land.” Thailand is not claiming ownership of the land of the temple of Preah Vihear.
  • Registration of Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage site – Thailand had intended this, Cambodia rejected this, and to find a solution both governments negotiated from 2007 to 2008 and achieved an agreement. The World Heritage Site was registered not in the name of the two countries, but in the name of Cambodia only. But the decision of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2008 states specifically that this listing does not imply anything about conflicting territorial claims.
  • Joint management planning – In view of the geographic and political situation, the representatives of both governments agreed, in 2008, to jointly develop a management plan for Preah Vihear, and present it in 2010 to the UNESCO committee for review. Reviewing the Khmer language press, we have not seen that this difficult, but crucial joint task has been reported to the Khmer public – nor any details, what kind of plans exist to elaborate such a joint management plan. Quite to the contrary, several statements in the Cambodian public seem to insist that there is nothing to negotiate with Thailand. That is not what the Cambodian delegation in 2008 agreed to.

The Thai Prime Minister was recently quoted to have described the result of this process, blaming UNESCO for agreeing to designate Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site at a time when the border demarcation of the contested areas was not yet done by the two governments. Since then, “we have tensions, and tourists cannot go there any more. That defeats the whole purpose of World Heritage listing, for local people and for tourists.”

A Cambodian newspaper report from yesterday confirmed this situation: The number of tourists to Preah Vihear declined by more than 50,000 in six months of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008, when there had been more that 85,000. The number of people who lost their lives – on both sides – has not been officially confirmed and added up.

While there was concern that incorrect newspaper reports about the installation of some lighting at Angkor Wat, only for testing, might have led to chaos and confusion, a publication of the texts of the actual agreements related to the Preah Vihear, in the Khmer language, might help to dispel any rumors that the jointly to be developed management plan is a new Thai ploy. It is what the Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister, who led the negotiations from 2007 to 2008, agreed to.

And, as was also reported during the week: “Wood Is Transported from Preah Vihear Day and Night, and Forestry Officials Said They Do Not Dare to Curb Down on It” – as it is backed by powerful people.

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