Preah Vihear ruling hailed as 'win-win' for Thailand, Cambodia

The International Court of Justice ruled that a square kilometer around the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but left most of the Thai-Cambodian border dispute for resolution later.

Heng Sinith/AP
Cambodian Buddhist monks walk through the compound of Preah Vihear Temple near the Cambodian-Thai border, about 152 miles north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013.

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Thai and Cambodian troops are staying put, but the peace around the disputed Preah Vihear border temple appears to be holding a day after a United Nations court ruled that the immediately surrounding territory belongs to Cambodia and Thai forces must withdraw.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said that Thai troops would not be withdrawn from a disputed square-kilometer region surrounding the temple – and which the International Court of Justice ruled was Cambodian territory – until Thai and Cambodian officials could meet to discuss implementation. But the National News Bureau of Thailand reports "that the verdict created a win-win situation for both countries and there have been no reports of border clashes as previously anticipated."

Radio Free Asia reports that the ruling caused no tensions between the Thai and Cambodian forces around Preah Vihear, which has been a flashpoint in recent years between the two nations.

Both countries have laid claim to a few square miles of scrubland around the temple since the ICJ ruled Preah Vihear was Cambodian in 1962. Since 2008, the two countries have had a series of skirmishes over the land, most recently in 2011, when more than two dozen soldiers and civilians from both sides were killed over the course of the year.

But the ICJ ruled on Monday that "Cambodia had sovereignty over the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear," referring to a subregion of the disputed territory currently held by Thai forces, reports Agence France-Presse. "In consequence Thailand was under an obligation to withdraw from that territory Thai military or police forces or other guards or keepers who were stationed there," [Judge Peter] Tomka said.

While the ruling granted Cambodia the most hotly contested portion of the region surrounding the temple, the court declined to rule on much of the rest of the approximately 2 square mile area, instead declaring that Thailand and Cambodia must negotiate the ownership of that territory.

The Phnom Penh Post reports that the ruling is "viewed as a small victory for Cambodia but not a huge loss for Thailand" and that both Shinawatra and Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen said they would begin talks to resolve the remaining differences over the territory.

The Post adds that the ruling will boost Shinawatra, whose government has been under fire for trying to ram through an amnesty that would allow the controversial former premier – and Shinawatra's brother – Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand. The government's failed attempt to open the door to Thaksin's return has spurred fierce protests from the opposition. But analysts tell the Post that the ICJ ruling will likely not flare tensions further:

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said yesterday that the verdict had taken some fuel out of the anti-government protests, as well as defusing tensions at the border.

“This is not the bombshell decision that the Thais were fearing. If the decision had been completely in Cambodia’s favour, it would have fanned the flames [of these protests] and the downside was dire,” he said.

“It will be played as a halfway victory for Thailand, not as a defeat … and the Cambodians might play it the same way, “Now they are forced to go back to a bilateral framework … which is optimistic given the leadership of both governments are aligned. They see eye-to-eye on the need to work things out,” he said.

The Economist's Banyan column reports that in some ways, the Preah Vihear dispute "is intrinsically linked to the figure of Mr. Thaksin."

The close relationship between Messrs Hun Sen and Thaksin – the living symbol of the Thai opposition – contributed to escalating tensions at the border zone until Yingluck became prime minister, in mid–2011. In response to an interim ICJ ruling at around the time that Yingluck took office, the two countries withdrew their military forces from a demilitarised zone covering some 17 square kilometres of territory near the temple.

As such, the Economist adds:

Ms Yingluck cannot be seen to be too friendly with Cambodia at such a time. Any misstep in relation to the sensitive issue of Thailand’s territorial integrity would stir up nationalist sentiment. It may provide the army with an excuse to intervene in a bid to maintain its heavy-handed role in Thai politics.

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