The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is due hand down a decision on 11 November in the latest case involving Preah Vihear, the 11th century Hindu temple that has been at the heart of disputes, on occasion spilling over into armed conflict, between Thailand and Cambodia for over fifty years.
In 1962 the ICJ awarded Cambodia sovereignty over the temple but did not rule on the question of the territory immediately surrounding it. The practical importance of this omission lies in the fact that the temple is readily accessible from Thailand but only reached with some difficulty from Cambodia, since Preah Vihear is located on the top of an escarpment overlooking the northern Cambodian plain.
The Preah Vihear issue is one I have previously discussed in The Interpreter and in more detail in an article for Open Democracy. Simplified greatly, the Cambodian Government claims that the 1962 ICJ ruling means it has sovereignty over the temple and 4.6 sq km of territory surrounding it. Thailand, in contrast, argues that the ruling should be interpreted to mean that Cambodian sovereignty only applies to 0.35 sq km.
According to the Thai ambassador to The Hague, there are four possible rulings the ICJ could hand down: it could decide not to interpret the 1962 judgment; it could rule in favour of Cambodia; it could say that Thailand’s territorial claim is correct; or it could hand down a ruling clarifying aspects of the 1962 judgment.
The Cambodian and Thai governments have reached a modus vivendi for the present, agreeing to cooperate to prevent the ruling causing difficulties between them, and there are signs that the issue no longer stirs the same kind of ultra-nationalist feeling that has occurred in the past.
One such sign is the fact that the temple is now, at least in the Thai English-language press, routinely referred to by its Cambodian name, Preah Vihear, rather than the Thai usage of Phra Khao Viharn. Two prominent Thai scholars, Charnvit Kasetsiri and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, have joined with a Cambodian author, Pou Sothirak, in a recently published book calling for a peaceful settlement of disputes over territory (Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and Its Solutions; I should note that both Charnvit and Pou are long-standing acquaintances of mine). It is probably fair to say that this moderate tone is shared by a large number of Thais and Cambodians of all political persuasions.
Yet despite this change in tone, it is clear that the Thai Government is concerned that the ICJ ruling could lead to serious anti-Cambodian protests that would feed into more general unrest at a time when domestic political divisions have clearly not moderated. One Thai friend suggested to me, in all seriousness, that the division between the government Pheu Thai party and the opposition Democrats was as sharp as that between the Democrats and the Republicans in the US House of Representatives.
The Thai Government has instituted a range of measures to prevent any ICJ decision becoming the basis for renewed difficulties with Cambodia. These measures include protection of Thai embassies abroad, including in Phnom Penh, the dissemination of calming information in provinces bordering Cambodia, and even plans to broadcast loud-speaker calls for calm along the border. Talks have been held with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, and the Cambodian Government is reported to be taking similar measures, though the issue has received much less media attention in that country, where the post-election stand-off still dominates the media.
All of these measures are being taken with sharp memories of past violent protests in both Cambodia and Thailand over issues of sovereignty. In 2003 violent riots in Phnom Penh followed the alleged claim by a popular Thai singer that the temple of Angkor Wat really belonged to Thailand. Thai commercial interests in Phnom Penh were attacked and torched and the Thai ambassador narrowly escaped being assaulted by a mob. In Thailand, reaction by ultra nationalists to the awarding of heritage status to Preah Vihear was joined to other protests by conservative forces. Then in 2011 there were sharp military exchanges between the two countries in the region of Preah Vihear.
If the ICJ judgment is received without sharp reactions in either Thailand or Cambodia, it will be a measure of a maturity in relations between the two countries that has so often been lacking in the past.
Photo by Flickr user TrojanTraveler.