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Thailand Threatens to Pull Out of UN World Heritage Committee Over Border Dispute

Thailand is threatening to withdraw support from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization if the U.N. World Heritage Committee backs a Cambodian plan to manage a 900-year-old Hindu temple site bordering the two countries.

The Thai government's threat to withdraw from the 21-nation UNESCO World Heritage Committee was made as the panel prepared to vote on a new Cambodian proposed management plan for the 900-year-old Khmer temple.

Source of tension

The Preah Vihear temple site lies immediately inside the Cambodian border on the top of a 525-meter-high cliff in the Dangrek Mountain range. But access to the temple complex is only readily available from the Thai side.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled that that the temple is on the Cambodian side of the border, but failed to determine ownership of an adjacent piece of land. Since then, Thailand has sought to have both countries jointly seek World Heritage listing for the site.

But in 2008, then Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to resign after a Thai court found he had breached the constitution by signing a joint communiqué with Cambodia. This opened the way for Cambodia to make a separate application for World Heritage listing.

New friction

Under a proposed development plan for the temple, Thailand fears Cambodia may create a buffer zone around the site, marking what Thailand sees as occupation of its territory.

The Thai government has been lobbying committee member states to postpone the vote until both countries settle the border disputes covering land immediately surrounding the Preah Vihear temple.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Minister for Natural Resources Suvit Khunkitti attended the meeting and had the full backing of the Cabinet for Thailand to withdraw from the World Heritage Committee.

"If the process adopting that plan is approved, not only Khun Suvit is authorized to object to that plan - not to vote for that plan - he is authorized to express his ideas, his concerns and also the wishes of the Thai government to reconsider the membership of the World Heritage Committee," Panitan said.

Thai proposal

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is calling for a return to a 2000 agreement centered on the border demarcation. He said Thailand would only accept Cambodia's management plan if the temple is jointly listed between the two countries.

The temple site gained World Heritage listing in 2008, but has remained a source of nationalist tensions since then. Pro-nationalist groups in Thailand protested earlier this week outside the UNESCO offices in Bangkok.

Avoiding clashes

In recent years, rising tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have led to cross-border clashes, with the Thai army accusing Cambodian troops of laying land mines in the region.

UNESCO's director general, Irina Bokova, released a statement calling for dialogue in safeguarding the temple site. She also said the World Heritage Committee's first concern is to protect and promote the region's heritage, and emblems of peace, dialogue and reconciliation.