Cambodians celebrated a landmark victory over neighboring Thailand after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled a promontory and most of the nearby land that surrounds the 11th century temples at Preah Vihear belonged to them.
The ICJ, the world’s highest court, clarified the border that divides the two countries with the exception of one nearby hill and said “the parties had an obligation to settle any dispute between them by peaceful means.”
Nevertheless, it told Thailand to withdraw its troops from the area.
Thai troops crossed into Cambodia and claimed territory surrounding Preah Vihear in 2008 after the Cambodian government sought World Heritage status for the temples – a move that infuriated the Thai government.
Military skirmishes have persisted and some local residents have been killed or displaced, although both sides agreed to pull their soldiers back last year. At least 28 people have died in violent outbreaks in the past two years alone.
“This is a significant step forward towards a peaceful resolution,” said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in an address to the nation. His Foreign Minister Hor Namhong added that the ICJ had “rendered most of what we want.”
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pledged to work closely with Hun Sen, who is already on close terms with her, adding she would do everything in her power to protect her country's interests.
“Thailand and Cambodia share the 800-kilometer-long border. As ASEAN members, we have to rely on each other for prosperity. We share long historical ties and both need to cooperate for the sake of both nations,” she said.
Cambodian sovereignty over the temple has been a long standing sore point for the Thai military and Phnom Penh sought clarification of the ICJ’s 1962 ruling after fresh fighting erupted in 2011. That ruling awarded sovereignty of the temples to Cambodia but ambiguities remained over control of 4.6-square-kilometers of surrounding land.
“Cambodia had sovereignty over the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear," ICJ judge Peter Tomka said at The Hague. “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.”
It was a unanimous decision by 17 international judges and cannot be appealed.
The 1962 ruling came after a formal request from the administration of Norodom Sihanouk who, at the time, protested a continued Thai occupation of the site despite a border agreement struck by French colonial authorities and the government of Siam in the 1900s.
Preah Vihear sits atop a 525-metre cliff face on a promontory that juts out of the Dangrek mountains and overlooks the Cambodian plain below. The Dangreks stretch for 300 kilometers west to east and provide a north-south border divide between Thailand and Cambodia.
In seeking to protect its Indochinese assets, French authorities had sought to block Thai control of the military high ground along the border by gaining sovereignty over a narrow strip of land that runs parallel along the cliff line. Preah Vihear sits on that line.
Bangkok broke the border treaty in World War II after striking a deal with Tokyo. Invading Japanese troops were allowed access to Thai territory and the Malay Peninsula and in return Thailand sent its forces into Laos and Cambodia, annexing huge tracts of land, including Preah Vihear and the magnificent temple ruins of Angkor Wat.
Thailand was forced to withdraw at the end of the war following threats from Britain to haul its leaders before war crimes tribunals that were getting underway.
Any further Thai territorial ambitions were thwarted by the 1962 decision and subsequent wars that led to Khmer Rouge occupation of the Dangrek cliff tops with Pol Pot enjoying Thai military patronage from 1979 until the late 1990s.
Tensions along the border were running high ahead of the verdict amid reports that Cambodia had redeployed troops to the surrounding area while villagers in the vicinity were digging bunkers.
By Tuesday morning, however, tensions had subsided and the border region was calm – except for one highly nationalistic group, the Thai Patriotic Network, which said it will reject any ICJ judgment after petitioning the court to throw the case out.
In Thailand, the ICJ ruling was not unexpected but added to the country’s political problems and protests which have found traction amid government attempts to pass an amnesty bill that would allow former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra to return from exile. The bill was unanimously rejected by the Thai Senate earlier Tuesday after tens of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered on the streets of Bangkok.
It was actually a deal struck between Thaksin and Hun Sen that led to the World Heritage listing of Preah Vihear in 2008. It was reached before the Thai leader was ousted by a coup in 2006. He has since been tried in absentia for corruption and sentenced to two years in jail but managed to flee before being incarcerated.
In Thailand the fate and control of Preah Vihear have become inextricably linked with the amnesty, which has proved highly divisive and opposition is growing among all sides of politics. Protesters already demonstrating against the amnesty could quite easily add anger over the lost territory at Preah Vihear into the mix and blame the government.
Sponsored by Yingluck — Thaksin’s sister – the amnesty provides a blanket cover for all those involved in the Yellow and Red shirt protests dating back to January 1 2004, including those responsible for the killings of more than 90 people in riots three years ago.
“It’s a volatile situation and can be traced all the way to Thaksin’s days as Prime Minister more than seven years ago,” one analyst told The Diplomat.
Under the constitution, Yingluck’s ruling Puea Thai party can re-introduce the controversial bill in another 180 days. The dispute at Preah Vihear, however, appears to be over.
Luke Hunt can followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.