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Temple plan premature: Thais

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Monks and tourists walk among the ruins of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple in November in 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Thailand's lead lawyer for the upcoming International Court of Justice hearings over Preah Vihear is downplaying statements by a senior Thai official that seemed to lay out the country’s legal strategy for the hearings in April.

Darm Boontham, director of the Boundary Division under the Thai Foreign Ministry’s Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs, reportedly told a government committee this week that a 1962 decision by the ICJ to award Cambodia the 11th-century temple had nothing to do with the current hearings, which only pertain to the 4.6 square-kilometre area surrounding the ruin.

Therefore, the reasoning goes, Cambodia had no right to ask for clarification about the surrounding area in 2011 – after several years of deadly cross-border clashes – and the court has no authority to rule on it.

But as hearings over the disputed territory are roughly three months away, Thailand’s Ambassador in The Hague, Virachai Plasai, who is also the lead lawyer on the case, told the Post that it’s premature to come out with an
official strategy.

Darm was “expressing just a view of an officer who works on this case, and we have many people who work on this,” he said.

“I think we should not jump the gun here,” he added. “And I can tell you that it has not been decided yet what we are going to say. So please don’t pay too much attention to that. He meant well, he was trying to give information.”

From the beginning of the year, it seems as if a week hasn’t passed without a Thai official’s comments over the Preah Vihear dispute making it into the press and stirring up emotions. Tensions started to rise earlier this month after the Thai foreign ministry announced plans to launch a public awareness campaign about the temple, which many interpreted as an early admission of defeat ahead of the hearings.

Ambassador Virachai, like other officials in Thai diplomatic circles, rejects that interpretation.

“I am not hopeless at all, I am not overconfident, but I am not hopeless,” he said. “

Koy Kuong, spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the matter is in the court’s hands, and he declined to comment. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that though he’s not a legal expert, the comments about legal strategy from Darm felt more like public relations than litigation.

“I feel this is a tactical effort to do damage control,” he said.

Both Cambodia and Thailand will send delegations to the ICJ for the hearings from April 15-19.

To contact the reporters on this story: Vong Sokheng at sokheng.vong@phnompenhpost.com

Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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