Thailand, Cambodia Spar at UN Court over Preah Vihear Temple

Cambodia and Thailand presented oral arguments to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) April 15-19 over a long disputed area of land near Cambodia’s 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple.

The hearings are the latest round in a centuries-old battle between the two countries over the contested area, located along Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand. Preah Vihear and the land in question are geographically small and remote but the clash over them has represented larger internal struggles of nationalism and domestic political posturing. For both Thailand and Cambodia, the question of the land surrounding Preah Vihear represents critical issues of sovereignty and national pride.

Q1: What is the dispute about?

A1: Thailand and Cambodia both claim ownership of a 1.7 square mile area adjacent the 11th century Preah Vihear temple. Thailand and Cambodia do not dispute ownership of the Hindu temple itself, which the ICJ awarded to Cambodia in1962, but the area immediately surrounding the important tourist attraction.

Cambodia argues that the ICJ decision grants it ownership of the land surrounding the temple. Cambodia says its current petition to the ICJ is a request for interpretation on the 1962 ruling, claiming that the ICJ awarded the temple and the surrounding area to Cambodia by using primarily maps drafted by the Franco-Siamese Mixed Border Commission in 1907. It ordered Thailand to withdraw troops from the border. Both Thailand and Cambodia accepted the verdict at the time.

Thailand claims the ruling only applied to the temple itself, and that the ICJ did not sufficiently establish ownership of the disputed area next to the temple. It claims it never accepted the 1907 survey commission’s findings and that they are not legally binding.

Q2: What led to the hearings before the ICJ?

A2: Thailand and Cambodia have each controlled the area of Preah Vihear at different points since the construction of the temple in the 11th century by two Khmer kings. Both sides have disputed its ownership for hundreds of years. Cambodia took Thailand to the ICJ in 1962 to settle the dispute; the ICJ ruled that the temple was “situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia.” Cambodia was shortly thereafter engulfed in the Vietnam War, followed by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and a Vietnamese occupation, so Preah Vihear received little attention until recently.

The dispute reemerged in 2008 due to a confluence of domestic political events. In the lead up to national elections in both Thailand and Cambodia, leaders in each country used the Preah Vihear dispute to stoke nationalism and boost their domestic political standing with the electorate. Shortly before elections in July 2008, Cambodia applied to UNESCO to name Preah Vihear a World Heritage site. UNESCO accepted Cambodia’s request by listing Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site July 8, 2008.

At the same time, Thai leaders of the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) used UNESCO’s decision to stoke nationalism against the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP), affiliated with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. PAD leaders lambasted PPP foreign minister Noppadon Pattama, who supported the Cambodian petition and signed a joint communique with Cambodia for the temple’s UNESCO status, likening his actions to treason. Public outrage prompted Noppadon to resign on July 10.

Widespread protests erupted in both countries. On July 15, 2008, Thailand sent soldiers to Preah Vihear to reclaim the territory surrounding the temple. Cambodia responded by increasing its troop levels as well. The border near Preah Vihear became increasingly militarized and relations between Cambodia and Thailand deteriorated. By mid-July over 1,200 Cambodian and Thai troops patrolled the area.

In February 2011, Cambodia jailed two members of a Thai nationalist group after they allegedly entered illegally into Cambodia, sparking clashes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers stationed near Preah Vihear. Between February and April, 26 people were killed in the fighting and tens of thousands living on both sides of the border fled their homes.

On April 28, 2011, Cambodia submitted a request to the ICJ to interpret its 1962 ruling with regard to the disputed territory around the temple.

Q3: How were regional mechanisms used to resolve the dispute?

A3: Cambodia took its case to the UN Security Council in February 2011. The Security Council made the unprecedented move of referring the case to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in which both Thailand and Cambodia are members.

Indonesia, then chair of ASEAN, took a leading role in seeking to mediate the dispute by sending Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to Thailand and Cambodia. Several weeks later ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to deploy military and civilian observers to the troubled border. Many observers saw the move as a sign of ASEAN’s increased willingness to mediate regional disputes.

However, ASEAN was unable to mitigate the dispute. Both sides originally agreed to permit Indonesian observers to monitor a ceasefire. Thailand, however, reversed its decision when the military, claiming observers undermined the country’s national sovereignty, refused to support the mission.

Cambodia returned to the ICJ in April 2011 and requested an interpretation of the court’s 1962 verdict. In July 2011 the ICJ ordered a provisional demilitarized zone around the temple and the return of ASEAN observers to monitor the area.

Q4: When is the ICJ expected to make its ruling?

A4: The ICJ is expected to issue its ruling in October or November of this year. Both countries are confident the ICJ will rule in its favor.

An ICJ judge requested during the hearing that Cambodia and Thailand submit to the court their definitions of the “vicinity” near Preah Vihear by April 26.

Q5: What will happen after the ruling?

A5: Many observers and locals feel mounting concern that an ICJ ruling favoring either country could once again inflame hostilities between Cambodia and Thailand. Thai military chief Gen. Prayut Chan-O-Cha said recently that his country would not necessarily abide by the ICJ ruling.

Tensions intensified between the two countries in the days leading up to the hearing. The Nation in Bangkok reported April 12 that Thai officials turned the Government House into a command center for the prime minister and army leaders to watch the hearings live. Thailand broadcast the hearings to the public in Thai and English.

Cambodia’s foreign minister Hor Namhong warned on April 15 that without an ICJ interpretation, the two countries would not be able to live in “a friendly, peaceful and cooperative environment.”

Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair on Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Amy Killian is a researcher with the CSIS Sumitro Chair on Southeast Asia Studies.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program

Amy Killian