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Thailand-Cambodia: Temple of gloom

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8 February 2011 15:56

For the past week, Thai and Cambodian forces have been exchanging fire near the Preah Vihear temple and other nearby locations along their common border, resulting in five deaths. This is far fewer than occurred in clashes in 2009, but the rising rhetoric from both sides suggests little likelihood for an early settlement of a long-running dispute about sovereignty over a major 11th century Angkorian-period temple site.

The conflict reflects long-term Thai-Cambodian antagonism, particularly since the Second World War. More immediately, it is an issue linked to Thai domestic politics. Thai ultra-nationalists, particularly those associated with the Yellow Shirt 'People's Alliance for Democracy', are seeking to undermine the Abhisit Government, which they regard as too centrist. They are looking to the Preah Vihear dispute as a way to pursue their aims.

The question of which country has sovereignty over the temple is complicated, not least because of its physical location at the top of a 525m escarpment overlooking the northern Cambodian plain, a location much more easily accessed from Thailand than Cambodia. The temple was 'found' to be within Cambodian territory as the result of a joint Franco-Thai border commission in 1906-07, which appears to have deviated from a principle agreed by both parties that the border between the two countries would be related to the north-south watershed.

Despite this fact, and the possibility that Thai acquiescence to this apparent departure from principle may have been a reflection of where power lay in the early 20th century, the question of sovereignty was not challenged from Bangkok while France held power over Cambodia.

In 1954, and following Cambodia's independence a year earlier, Thai troops occupied the Preah Vihear temple, driving out the small number of Cambodians present at the time. This event took place at a time of rampant Thai nationalism under Prime Minister Phibun. Unable to eject Thai troops from the temple, Cambodia referred the issue to the International Court of Justice, which gave its ruling in Cambodia's favour in 1962.

Despite subsequent attempts on the part of some Thai politicians to rewrite the ICJ's judgment, a strong majority of the court's judges concluded that Cambodia had sovereignty over the temple. In doing so they addressed the issue of the line, placing Preah Vihear's position within Cambodian territory directly. The legal language of the court's majority decision is complex and the following is a careful paraphrase of what the majority of judges decided:

  • Although, as a general principle, the watershed was to be regarded as constituting the boundary between Cambodia and Thailand along the Dangrek range, delimitation of the actual boundary was to follow a joint survey commission that traveled along this region.
  • When, subsequently, a map of the Dangrek section of the boundary between the two countries was drawn up in Paris, this map was invested with official standing, even though the production of the map did not in itself give it a binding character.
  • Nevertheless, because Thailand asked the French authorities for additional copies of the map and did not protest against the boundary lines drawn on it, the Court feels bound, as a matter of treaty interpretation, to pronounce in favour of the line as mapped in the disputed  area.

Following the ICJ's decision, Thai governments, but not all politicians, have accepted that sovereignty of the Preah Vihear temple does, indeed, belong to Cambodia. But some governments have continued to dispute sovereignty over the territory around the temple. This has been a factor in the arguments of the ultra-nationalists, but again the findings of the ICJ in 1962 would appear to have resolved the question, with the map produced in 1907 contradicting Thai claims.

All this said, the issue is complicated by the fact that Thai provincial authorities have, over the years, built access roads to the temple that clearly infringe on the area that the ICJ ruling adjudged to be under Cambodian sovereignty. And it is far from clear that any Cambodian protest was ever made in relation to these developments. Moreover, it is apparent that many Thai politicians totally reject the suggestion that the ICJ judgment settled the territorial issue. Indeed, for the ultra-nationalists, the whole of the ICJ judgment is wrong and the temple belongs to Thailand.

The key to whether the issue continues as a cause for armed hostility or is allowed to subside lies, essentially, with the Thai military. For the moment, the military seems to be to be in sympathy with the ultra-nationalists. And the longer hostilities continue, the more difficult it will be for politicians of all stripes on both sides of the conflict to call for moderation.

Photo by Flickr user Everything Everywhere.

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