Bangkok, Thailand – Hundreds of Thai villagers fled their homes along the border with Cambodia ahead of the International Court of Justice ruling on disputed territory – an issue that has turned deadly over the decades.
Fears of clashes were high between Thai and Cambodian forces deployed near the contentious Preah Vihear temple, as the court in The Hague prepared its verdict. Skirmishes in 2011 resulted in 28 dead – soldiers and civilians – on both sides, and tens of thousands of people were forced to flee the fighting.
With ultra-nationalistic rhetoric frequently colouring discussions of the 12th century Hindu temple’s ownership and its surrounding land, there were concerns that a ruling could spark fresh fighting.
Instead, the villagers who fled returned home while the Thai and Cambodia governments digested a verdict that looks unlikely to alter the status quo in the immediate future.
|A Cambodian soldier (R) next to a Thai soldier (L) near the Preah Vihear temple [EPA]|
Thailand recognises Cambodia as owning the temple – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – but both sides lay claim to an adjacent 4.6-square-kilometre piece of land. The court ruled that a 1-square-kilometre area of the disputed territory was Cambodia’s, and control over the rest must be settled through negotiations between the two sides.
“It’s a mixed judgment that allows both countries to look at it as a victory,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist. “It does not change much on the ground, even though Cambodia got a teeny bit more land out of it. But the development of the area still requires bilateral cooperation.”
The Hague court had been asked by Cambodia to clarify its 1962 judgment, which awarded the temple, built during the Khmer Empire, to Phnom Penh. Tensions escalated in 2008 over the area around the temple, leading to a heavy military presence and a number of clashes.
The court ruled on Monday that Thai troops should be withdrawn. But with no mention of boundaries and previous orders to demilitarise ignored -Thailand has already said troops will continue to patrol the border – it remains to be seen how the dispute will now play out.
Observers say the Thai government views the real threat arising from the verdict as internal, rather than external. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has reasons to be worried.
The Phreah Vihear temple has in the past been a cause célèbre for ultra-nationalists, helping them mobilise against previous incarnations of the current ruling party. Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, a former prime minister who fled the country following abuse of power convictions, is regarded as being close to Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister.
“I am a little bit concerned that the way it [temple issue] is reported in the media is as a win or lose situation. I don’t think this is the case,” says Sihasak Phuangkhetkeow, permanent secretary of Thailand’s Foreign Ministry.
“I hope everyone looks objectively at the ruling and keeps from stirring up nationalistic sentiments.”
Thailand’s current political climate is already teetering on tumult. Large protests have engulfed the Thai capital Bangkok over the past weeks, as the opposition Democrat Party and other anti-government groups took to the streets to protest an amnesty bill that would clear Thaksin and others with ties to the government.
The law would grant amnesty to pro-government demonstrators who are currently in prison or facing trial for actions during previous political rallies that helped oust a military-backed government at elections. But critics say the bill would also aid the return of Thaksin, a popular yet intensely polarising figure in the country, who is believed to be currently living in Dubai.
An International Court of Justice ruling that decisively turned over land surrounding Preah Vihear to Cambodia would have reinforced the perception that Thaksin and his allies, including Hun Sen, are exploiting Thailand for personal gain, placing the Yingluck administration under greater pressure.
“The anti-government protesters are looking to overthrow the government and they will use any justification they can find,” says Thitinan. “Preah Vihear was seen as a key catalyst, as a tipping point, but the judgment did not go in favour of the protesters.”
About 1,000 nationalist Thai demonstrators who say they don’t acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction marched to the defence ministry demanding that the army protect the disputed area.
“This government wants to sell our country and our territory,” said Chamlong Srimuang, a leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy. “Thais believe in justice, but why should we listen to the world court’s ruling?”
With a decisive verdict failing to have the anticipated rabble-rousing effect, protesters will have to look elsewhere for inspiration in their efforts to topple the Yingluck administration. But this doesn’t mean Thai-Cambodian border issues will be sorted anytime soon.
“Border demarcation always takes a very long time, wherever you are,” a foreign ministry official said off-the-record, because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.
“I’m sure there are other areas along the border with Cambodia that will be disputed. It’s just that it’s much easier for people to get worked up and emotional about a temple rather than a random stretch of land.”