Thai–Cambodia relations one year after the ICJ judgement

Author: Greg Raymond, La Trobe University

The Thai–Cambodia dispute over the Preah Vihear temple (called Phra Viharn in Thailand) is one of the worst intra-ASEAN conflicts on record. At least 34 people were killed during intermittent hostilities over the three years. 11 November 2014 marks the first anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) reinterpretation of its judgement dispute. The ICJ’s decision on 18 July 2011 to reconsider its 1962 ruling ended a three year armed border conflict, from 2008 to 2011, over the area around the temple.

Cambodian Buddhist monks walk through the compound of Preah Vihear Temple near the Thai–Cambodian border and about 245 kilometres (152 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, 12 November 2013. (Photo: AAP).

Commentators hailed the judgment as a win–win, although it might also be described as a lose–lose. Neither side obtained what they wanted.

Cambodia had sought to redraw the boundary around the temple according to the colonial-era French map known as the Annex 1 map. This map had played a large part in the court awarding the temple to Cambodia in its original 1962 judgement. But this time the court decided the map could only be used to define the northern edge of the temple area, not the boundaries to the east, west and south. These boundaries would be decided by local geographic features and, where this was insufficient, negotiations between the two parties.

Thailand had sought to deny the relevancy of the Annex 1 map entirely, hoping to retain the boundaries it had unilaterally demarcated following the 1962 decision. But the court ruled that the location of Thailand’s barbed wire fence border around the temple was inconsistent with its 1962 judgement, and called for it to remove the fence and its forces.

One year on, what progress has been made in implementing the court’s judgement?

On the surface, the answer seems to be: very little. The court did not define a precise boundary in its judgement, leaving it to the two parties to jointly determine ‘in good faith’. But bilateral negotiations are yet to commence and no announcement has been made as to when they will start.

Despite this, there have been promising signs regarding the broader bilateral relationship. Most recently, Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth’s visit to Cambodia in October yielded some progress on tourism cooperation, including a MoU. And on 15 October, the Thai Ministry of Affairs advised that an international legal advisory team had been assembled, a map drafted and the court judgement translated.

Cambodia, for its part, appears to be taking a relaxed approach to moving forward on the issue. After Cambodian Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh visited Thailand in July, a Thai spokesman said that Cambodia understood that the ‘political situation in Thailand’ meant that the issue could not progress quickly.

A particularly positive development was Cambodia’s release, on 1 July, of Thai nationalist protestor Veera Somkwamkid. Veera had served three-and-a-half years of a six year sentence for trespass and espionage, after he and other nationalists were arrested at the temple in December 2010.

While Cambodia is proceeding with tourist and hotel development on its side of the temple, border relations remain uncertain. In early June, reports emerged that Thailand was building a new fence at the site. These reports appear to have been false, with a Thai spokesman suggesting that in the dry weather, trees shedding foliage had merely revealed old barbed wire. In October, there were reports of shots fired in the area that resulted in injuries, but a Thai military spokesman later denied that there was a clash.

More worrisome is that the issue remains political poison in Thailand, at least for politicians associated with the ill-fated joint World Heritage registration of the temple in 2008, which triggered the three year conflict.

Shortly after the 2013 judgement was announced, the former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, immediately stated that her government would not implement the judgement without a parliamentary resolution. When baited by opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as to whether she would explain the loss of territory resulting from the judgement to the Thai people, Yingluck denied that she had ever accepted the court’s decision. Instead, Yingluck stated she had only said that she would maintain order and relations with Cambodia.

Meanwhile, former foreign minister Noppadol Pattama (who with former prime minister Samak Sundaravej negotiated the ill-fated 2008 joint communiqué with Cambodia) continues to fight off assaults on his reputation by politicians who allege he ‘gave Preah Vihear to Cambodia’.

A Thai military government may be better placed to move forward on a joint border demarcation with Cambodia than an elected government. Civilian politicians of all persuasions continue to be vulnerable to accusations that they are eroding Thai sovereignty. These accusations fit the dominant narrative of Thai nationalist history, which frames the loss of the Preah Vihear temple as a further episode in a ‘wounded history’. In covering last year’s ‘win-win’ decision, one Thai newspaper article included alongside its analysis a table detailing fourteen occasions in Thai history where territory has been lost. The fourteenth was the loss of Preah Vihear in 1962.

It is possible that this uneasy modus vivendi could persist into the future, with both sides content to eschew accurate border demarcation. This would allow Thai governments to avoid the accusation of ceding territory and allow Cambodia to proceed with developing the temple’s tourist potential.

Thai–Malaysian border negotiations provide a precedent for this model. Although most of the border between Thailand and Malaysia was agreed on between 1973 and 1986, one intractable location at Bukit Jeli remains disputed. There both sides have given up trying to determine sovereignty over 42 hectares, with one politician dubbing the arrangement the ‘carbon sink solution’ because trees are allowed to grow there. A similar pragmatic stance over the disputed Preah Vihear temple could provide the best option for forestalling further conflict between Cambodia and Thailand.

Greg Raymond is a PhD candidate in the Politics Department, La Trobe University.

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