News / Asia

International Court to Rule on Thai-Cambodia Temple Dispute Soon

FILE - A Cambodian temple security guard stands at Preah Vihear temple, Cambodia.
FILE - A Cambodian temple security guard stands at Preah Vihear temple, Cambodia.
The prime ministers of Cambodia and Thailand are vowing to comply with an international court verdict regarding a small chunk of disputed territory along their shared border. Nevertheless, analysts in both countries are expressing concerns that Monday's legal decision has the potential to provoke violence.
Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, explained to the Cambodian people that he and his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, have agreed in advance to comply with the decision by the International Court of Justice and maintain peace and stability along the disputed border.
The prime minister also implored Cambodia’s armed forces to fulfill their duty to protect the border in the name of peace and avoid any action that could lead to further tension or clashes.
The ICJ will announce its verdict on Monday of which country should get the land surrounding an ancient Hindu temple. The court, in The Hague, awarded the Preah Vihear temple site to Cambodia in 1962.
The Khmer kingdom temple in 2008 was named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
As recently as two years ago, Cambodia and Thailand exchanged artillery fire along the border. Clashes that year killed dozens of people and forced tens of thousands to flee nearby villages.
In Thailand, Chulalongkorn University associate professor Panitan Wattanayagorn is among those worried about the ramifications of the verdict.
“If one country gains it will mean one country loses... We may see more complications or even more violence within the countries or between the two countries,” said Wattanayagorn.
Another Thai academic, Thammasat University professor Chanvit Kasetsiri, explained that the verdict could quickly become a rallying cry for the demonstrators who have been on the streets of Bangkok in recent days concerning a controversial amnesty bill.
“It’s very difficult to separate the Preah Vihear issue from domestic politics of Thailand, because in the past few years many rallies and demonstrations exploit the nationalistic sentiment among the people concerning loss of territory to Cambodia,” said Kasetsiri.
An independent Cambodian analyst, Lao Monghay, expressed hopes that his compatriots will accept the verdict in a mature manner should it be perceived as a loss.
The political analyst cautioned that an escalated dispute with Thailand would likely cause hardship for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who cross back and forth across the border to work.
Monghay hopes a calm outcome can lead to the two countries also resolving their disputed maritime border; the nearby waters are rich in natural resources.
The territorial dispute originated in the early years of the 20th century, when Cambodia was part of French Indochina. In its 1962 decision, the ICJ referenced agreements between the French and Siam (as Thailand was internationally known until 1939) that awarded the temple itself to Cambodia but left unresolved the ownership of 460 hectares of land surrounding the sacred site.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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