UN court orders troop drawdown in Thai-Cambodia temple row

The UN ruling, a partial win for Cambodia, may also pave the way for negotiations on the longstanding Thai-Cambodia temple dispute.

Heng Sinith/AP
In this July 6 photo, a Cambodian police officer, right, stands near the 11th century Hindu Preah Vihear temple, near the disputed border of Cambodia and Thailand, in Preah Vihear province, 152 miles north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The U.N.'s highest court on Monday, July 18, has ordered troops from both Thailand and Cambodia to immediately withdraw from disputed areas around the World Heritage temple straddling their border.

In a closely watched ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said Monday that Thailand and Cambodia should pull their troops from an ancient border temple where deadly clashes have flared in recent months.

The UN-affiliated court in The Hague called for a demilitarized zone to be set up around the temple, which belongs to Cambodia, as a way to reduce tensions. It also urged Thailand not to block access to the 11th century Hindu temple, Preah Vihear, which was awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 ruling that irked Thai nationalists. The temple lies on a hilltop easily accessible from the Thai side of the border.

The ruling is a partial victory for Cambodia, which sought help in April from the ICJ on what it called military aggression by Thailand. For its part, Thailand accuses Cambodia of provoking armed clashes along the border in order to force outside mediation, which Thailand opposes. Political analysts say both governments have fomented nationalism for their own ends.

The UN ruling may also pave the way for negotiations on the long-standing territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

To negotiate or not to negotiate

Ahead of Monday’s verdict, a Thai military spokesman said troops wouldn’t pull out immediately and struck a hawkish tone. "No matter what the ICJ's ruling is, troops of Army Region 2 will remain in the area [around Preah Vihear] to protect the land and sovereignty of our country,” Col. Prawit Hukaew said, according to the Bangkok Post.

But Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, speaking to reporters at the court, said Thailand was satisfied with the verdict and wanted bilateral negotiations on the land dispute. "We need to talk to one another ... let's come to the negotiating table,” he said. His Cambodian counterpart declined to comment, according to Reuters.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist for the Nation newspaper, said Cambodia would be disappointed that the ICJ didn’t take a stronger line. “As it stands now, I think the decision will force both sides into negotiations,” he says.

What's in a temple?

Until 2008, the temple lapsed in relative obscurity. Then, Thailand’s opposition pounced on a government decision to support Cambodia’s bid for a UN heritage award. Sovereignty over the temple became a rallying cry for right-wing protesters in Bangkok who helped topple an elected government loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck, is poised to become Thailand’s next leader after a landslide victory in elections on July 3. Analysts say her administration may have a better chance of resolving the border crisis, as Thaksin has ties to Cambodian leader Hun Sen, who took a personal dislike to outgoing Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

In February, fierce clashes erupted near the temple, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians on both sides of the border. In April, fighting broke out farther south along the poorly demarcated border.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which both countries belong, has agreed to an Indonesian proposal to deploy unarmed military observers, but their arrival has been held up by legal wrangling. In the ruling, the ICJ said Thailand and Cambodia should cooperate with ASEAN observers and allow them to enter the demilitarized zone.

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