The battle over the temple of Preah Vihear has reached the proverbial boiling point. In almost all cases of archaeological and cultural heritage the result is good, or at the very least not worse. But in Cambodia and Thailand the pride over a heritage site has resulted in deaths. Firstly, as valuable as cultural heritage is it should never been seen as more important than the lives of living, breathing people. What has happened at Preah Vihear is Cambodia was given the temple in 1962 as result of a demarcation decision by the International Court of Justice. Thailand was, subsequently, unhappy with that decision. The Thai people view the temple, originally part of the Khmer Empire, as part of their heritage.
But in 2008 Cambodia applied for Preah Vihear to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Being a World Heritage Site has benefits, yes. Preah Vihear culturally and archaeologically deserves to be on the UNESCO list of sites. But, the nomination of the site was a huge affront to the Thai people. So after a relatively quiet 50ish years, the dispute was in full force again. Since October 2008 there have been sporadic border clashes, resulting in casualties and fatalities. This last month 5 men were killed and the fighting also caused damage to the temple.
Here is a brief recap by what appears to be a Cambodian new source:
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There are a few items I take issue with here. First off, the sponsoring of this site is actually what caused the recent tensions and deaths. Oftentimes the designation as a World Heritage site is largely symbolic and a bragging point for nations, but this shows the ugly effect of over zealous naming. The site was already incredibly valued before nominating as a site. So valuable that both countries would have people die over it. The nomination just caused them to prove their mettle. This is a great example of how conservation can, in some situations, be worse than no conservation.
The net result of all this arguing over borders has been the loss of life and damage to the temple. If the temple had been left alone those men would not have lost their lives and the temple would have actually been in better condition, not damaged by mortar fire. Like anything else in the world, academia and conservation have effects outside their sphere. Ripples. As I said in my last post, conservationists should be aware of the situations around sites- heritage is not a vacuum.