Cambodia on Monday declared victory in its legal battle with Thailand over hotly contested borderland around Preah Vihear temple as the U.N.’s top court ruled that it belongs to Cambodia, and that Thai soldiers and police must stay out of the area.
The ruling was not a complete win for Cambodia, though, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague rejected its request to define the official borderline in the area or grant it another nearby hill.
Though Thailand and Cambodia have fought several brief but deadly battles over the area since the U.N. named the temple a World Heritage Site in 2008, fears of fresh fighting stemming from the ICJ decision proved overblown.
“This is the victory of all the nation and the reward to the political maturity of the Royal Government of Cambodia,” Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said immediately after the ICJ read out its decision.
The ICJ awarded Preah Vihear temple and its “vicinity” to Cambodia in a 1962 ruling but left the boundaries in dispute. After the latest round of fighting over land near the temple in early 2011, Cambodia asked the court to decide whether its 1962 decision could settle the matter.
Monday’s decision effectively denied Thailand much of the land it was claiming. The court’s 1962 verdict, Judge Peter Tomka said, reading from the day’s ruling, “decided that Cambodia has sovereignty over the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear.
“In consequence, Thailand was under an obligation to withdraw from that territory the Thai military or police forces, or other guards or keepers, that were stationed there.”
In the days leading up to Monday’s decision, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra both vowed to respect whatever ruling the ICJ handed down.
The ICJ did not give Cambodia everything it had asked for, including a ruling that the court’s 1962 verdict also effectively set the official border in the area on the basis of a French colonial-era map that favors Cambodia.
“The court does not consider it necessary…to address the question whether the 1962 judgment determined with binding force the boundary line between Cambodia and Thailand,” Judge Tomka said. The Preah Vihear promontory, he said, “was the issue which was in dispute in 1962 and which the court considers to be at the heart of the present dispute.”
The decision defines the promontory as the edge of the cliff that runs around most of the temple and the valley that separates the clifftop from nearby Preah Trap hill.
The decision also rejected Cambodia’s claim that the 1962 ruling gave it Phnom Trap hill, and left undecided Thailand’s claims to 4.6 square km south of the border on the French map. As the court defined it Monday, the Preah Vihear promontory appears to cover only part of that area. For its part, Cambodia has consistently refused to acknowledge the very existence of the disputed 4.6 square km.
In a televised interview with Cambodian broadcaster CNC from The Hague, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong called the ICJ’s ruling a “present” to Cambodia, but conceded that it had not won every point.
“We cannot say the court’s decision today 100 percent satisfies our purpose, but we are happy that we achieved most of what we wanted. I cannot give a percent, but it is most of our request,” he said. “It is not a simple decision, but it is compulsory, and both sides have to implement all the points.”
Mr. Namhong’s Thai counterpart, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, also at The Hague, said both sides were satisfied with the day’s ruling, according to German news agency DPA. Mr. Surapong also reportedly said the two countries would now establish a joint panel to develop the area, a proposition Cambodia has to date rejected.
According to DPA, Thailand’s ambassador to The Hague, Virachai Plasai, said the ICJ had only awarded Cambodia a “small area” of the disputed land that would still have to be demarcated.
Thai Ambassador to Cambodia Pakdi Touchayoot declined to comment.
At the border, a cease-fire deal between the two countries continued to hold against some fears that the ICJ’s ruling would spark more fighting.
Contacted immediately after the ruling at the temple, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Chea Dara said all was calm.
“The situation at the Preah Vihear temple border is calm and our soldiers have been meeting with the Thai army general Monday and Tuesday, and we agreed to solve the problem peacefully,” he said. “Our soldiers are awaiting orders from Prime Minister Hun Sen.”
Shortly before 9 p.m., state-owned broadcaster TVK ran a brief message from Mr. Hun Sen urging border soldiers and all civilians to stay calm.
“I would like to appeal again to armed forces fulfilling their duty to protect the border to continue to be patient, remain on standby and avoid any activity that might provoke tensions or a clash and let the two governments continue to discuss to implement the judgment of the ICJ,” he said.
“I would like to appeal to all compatriots to stay calm and keep public order in the country and continue to promote a spirit of good relations, friendship and cooperation between the countries and the people of Cambodia and Thailand,” Mr. Hun Sen added.
Muth Sary, who watched the ruling live on television from his home about 18 km from the border, said the court’s decision had allayed his fears that fighting would return to the area.
“I am happy with the ICJ’s ruling for Cambodia,” he said. “I’m not concerned any more, because the ruling is clear, and I hope there will be no more conflict between Cambodia and Thailand.”
Mr. Sary decided to stay put for the ruling. But with memories of Thai shelling in 2008, others were not taking any chances.
“We are concerned about our safety because in 2008, Thai shells reached our village,” said Tep Thy, who lives about 20 km from the border. “Some of our villagers are leaving their homes in homemade trucks and on motorcycles with trailers.”
She said those staying had taken the precaution of digging out rudimentary bunkers.
“We are leaving by motorcycle; now my whole village is empty,” said Ngeth Koeun, a neighbor.
Kim Hour, a vendor in Kulen district, said the only ones staying behind were the elderly and those too poor to leave.
“Now only the old men stay in the village to guard our belongings,” she said. “Some of the villagers aren’t escaping because they are poor, so they stay. But if there is shooting, maybe the trucks will come to take them like before.”
Despite the lingering fears, political analyst Kem Ley said Monday’s ruling would help keep the border peaceful.
It may not have decided just where the Thai-Cambodian border north of Preah Vihear temple runs, he said, “but at least we are sure right now about the land around the temple.”
Whether that peace holds, he added, “depends on the Thai people and the Thai government, if they can prevent their people [from] doing something.”
The ruling comes amid another rise in tensions in Thailand’s ever-turbulent politics, this time sparked by a bill being pushed through parliament by a Cambodia-friendly government that could grant amnesty and a free ride home to fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
There are fears that ultra-nationalist forces opposed to the bill could force the government’s hand along the border or cause trouble themselves.
“Some extremists may do something, so the Thai government should have a good plan for dealing with them,” Mr. Ley said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)
© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.