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June 26, 2013

Thai-Cambodia Border Decision Risks Renewing Nationalist Protests

by Daniel Schearf

The United Nations top court is expected to rule later this year on Cambodia's request to determine ownership of disputed territory on its border with Thailand. The International Court of Justice in the 1960s declared an ancient temple around the border to be Cambodia's but did not decide on land around the temple. A clear ruling on the land risks renewing tensions between the neighbors that, in recent years, has led to deadly military clashes. 
 
Thai nationalists two years ago demanded the United Nations cultural office de-list a Cambodian temple as a World Heritage site.
 
They view the recognition as a loss of Thai sovereignty stemming from a 1962 decision by a top U.N. court.
 
The International Court of Justice ruled on the ownership of the temple but, until this year, refused to decide who owns the land around it.
 
At Bangkok's Institute of Security and International Studies, Thitinan Pongsudhirak says it would be best if the court left ownership ambiguous.
 
"I'm hoping that this time we will see a similar ambiguity which forces Cambodian government and Thai government to sit down and work things out.  Because now we have two governments that seem to be able to talk," he said. 
 
Tensions over the issue led to sporadic clashes along the border that killed 20-some people and sent tens of thousands of villagers fleeing for safety.
 
The 900-year-old Khmer Hindu temple, called Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Phra Viharn in Thailand, was damaged in the fighting.
 
The border dispute was fueled by opponents of exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, says political analyst Thitinan.
 
"Politicization of the temple listing has been a function of domestic Thai politics.  At the same time, the Cambodian side, Prime Minister Hun Sen, also did not help by taking sides in this division in Thailand, by taking the side of Thaksin Shinawatra," he said. 
 
Indonesia sought to mediate the dispute, but the Thai military refused to allow monitors on the border.
 
Nonetheless, relations improved after Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister and the Thai army became more hesitant, says political analyst Thitinan.
 
"There are no backing, direct backing, from other sources to agitate, to aggravate, stimulate the army to go on the march again. So, much more conducive than 2011 for the Thai army to abide by whatever decision that comes out of ICJ," he said. 
 
Regardless of the court's decision, locals who live along the border want peace to prevail over politics so life and trade can continue as normal.