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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Partial victory at the ICJ

Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong (left) shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Surapong Tovichakchaikul before the International Court of Justice stated its verdict in the Preah Vihear case at The Hague yesterday.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong (left) shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Surapong Tovichakchaikul before the International Court of Justice stated its verdict in the Preah Vihear case at The Hague yesterday. AFP

Partial victory at the ICJ

The International Court of Justice yesterday unanimously declared that its 1962 judgment awarding the Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia also gave the Kingdom sovereignty over the promontory that the temple sits on.

But while the announcement was initially greeted as a resounding victory by some in Cambodia, the world court took pains to specify that the 1962 decision dealt with only a “small area” surrounding the temple.

The decision leaves unanswered the question of sovereignty over the remainder of the 4.6-square-kilometre area forming the heart of the long-running dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

The court also deemed it was not necessary to address whether the 1962 verdict determined a boundary line between the Kingdom and its western neighbour, though it did state that its original ruling forbade Thai troops from occupying that promontory area.

Speaking live on CTN after the judgment, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said the judgment, while not perfect, was adequate.

“Of course, we cannot say the verdict of this court today satisfies our aims 100 per cent, but we are happy, as the ruling met the majority of our demands,” he said.

Namhong specified that the court had recognised the Annex 1 map – drawn up by France and Thailand (then Siam) in the early 20th century and used by Cambodia in 1962 – as the map delineating the borders in the temple area.

He added that the fact that the court had rejected a second map presented by the Thai government after the 1962 judgment was a victory, along with the court’s decision that the road leading to the temple should remain fully free and open.

“I would like to affirm that this is a verdict that has to be implemented by all parties.… I would like to inform all Cambodians that the government has never ignored the protection of our territorial sovereignty,” he said.

In failing to address a larger area of land than the promontory, the court’s verdict – which cannot be appealed – paves the way for the two nations to deal with the border issue through negotiation.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra addressed that point following the verdict.

“Thailand will enter negotiations with Cambodia to put an end to the issue,” she said in a nationally televised press conference, the Bangkok Post reported.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, called on the armed forces and citizens alike to avoid creating tension with Thailand in a televised address last night.

“This is an important and historic step forward in the efforts of the Cambodian government to solve the issue between Cambodia and Thailand … peacefully and based on international law,” he said.

The judgment, viewed as a small victory for Cambodia but not a huge loss for Thailand, is expected to calm tensions at the border, which have been high despite pledges by both governments to keep the peace no matter what the court ruled.

Yesterday, as the verdict approached, villagers living near the border, many of whose homes had been destroyed during previous Thai shelling, were still making grim preparations.

Along one dirt road, women, girls and young men – all standing ankle-deep in soft mud – giggled as they used hoes, buckets and plastic dinner plates to clear out a concrete culvert that they intended to use as a bunker should shells start falling in their village.

Fellow resident Yun Saray, 58 – apparently overseeing the work – stalked back and forth between the two groups of her family members.

“I really hate war; war has always destroyed everything,” she said. “We want to live in peace, but we are afraid of the Thais and that a war could start with them.”

Yesterday’s verdict coincided with mass anti-government protests in Bangkok against a political amnesty bill that critics say will allow former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to the country from self-exile and escape a jail term.

Many feared that an ICJ decision going firmly against Thailand – a hot-button issue for a myriad of powerful nationalist groups – could add momentum to a popular movement that could bring down the government, and risk further fighting with Cambodia.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said yesterday that the verdict had taken some fuel out of the anti-government protests, as well as defusing tensions at the border.

“This is not the bombshell decision that the Thais were fearing. If the decision had been completely in Cambodia’s favour, it would have fanned the flames [of these protests] and the downside was dire,” he said.

Villagers watch the ICJ’s ruling in the Preah Vihear case
Villagers watch the ICJ’s ruling in the Preah Vihear case at a restaurant near the Thai-Cambodia border in Preah Vihear province. AFP

“It will be played as a halfway victory for Thailand, not as a defeat … and the Cambodians might play it the same way, “Now they are forced to go back to a bilateral framework … which is optimistic given the leadership of both governments are aligned. They see eye-to-eye on the need to work things out,” he said.

However, given that the court restricted its verdict to clarifying the “vicinity” of the temple, questions over what would change on the ground, if anything, remained unanswered last night.

“We’re waiting to see the Thai side, but as for withdrawing our troops, I think we have to see what is going on after the verdict, and also we have to wait for the government’s policy on what they want to do,” said Ou Narin, deputy commander of army’s 3rd Division, which oversees Preah Vihear.

The court concluded yesterday that in 1962, the ICJ did not mean to define “the vicinity” of the temple as extending beyond the promontory of Preah Vihear nor seek to address the sovereignty of any area “beyond the limits of the promontory”.

This promontory, according to the court, extends to the west and northwest of the temple, towards the Thai border, where it drops into a slope and then into a valley that separates it from the neighbouring hill of Phnom Trap.

In the north, the limit of the promontory is the Annex I map line, the court said.

“Accordingly, the Court considers that the promontory of Preah Vihear ends at the foot of the hill of Phnom Trap, that is to say: where the ground begins to rise from the valley,” the court judgment said.

Cambodia asked the court to interpret its 1962 decision in April 2011 following fierce border clashes in February and April of that year that left 28 dead.

Tensions had begun to escalate in 2008, when the 11th-century temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The recent dispute centres on maps submitted by Cambodia during the World Heritage site nomination process in 2007, which the Thais have said encroached on Thai territory and showed a different border line to the original colonial map used in 1962 – a claim Cambodia rejects.

The difference between the maps, according to the Thais, is the 4.6-square-kilometre area under contention.

Many now hope that the ICJ verdict will allow Cambodia and Thailand to end the longstanding dispute, and allow those living on the border to feel safe again.

Sixty-five-year-old Chim Yoeung’s eyes were brimming with tears after he watched the verdict at a village coffee shop near the border yesterday.

“I think this verdict is very just for Cambodia, and also can end the problems that we have had recently, and Thailand will not dare do anything more to Cambodia.”

Cheang Am, 39, a soldier from the frontlines, said he was ecstatic about the verdict, which had the potential to change his life for the better.

“I think that when Thai troops withdraw from the disputed area, maybe I can go back home and live with my family, and can plant crops or something to support them, because my salary is not enough.”

VONG SOKHENG AND KEVIN PONNIAH REPORTED FROM PHNOM PENH; MAY TITTHARA AND STUART WHITE REPORTED FROM PREAH VIHEAR

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