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Temple ruling eyed warily

Though the International Court of Justice is expected to rule this year on who owns the land surrounding Preah Vihear temple, the decision won’t solve the decades-old dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, and may even incite further border clashes, according to a new white paper.

A border patrol officer guards a quiet area of the Preah Vihear temple
A border patrol officer guards a quiet area of the Preah Vihear temple near the contested border with Thailand in April. SCOTT HOWES

The paper, published last week by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, assumes that there are only two likely outcomes of the current case – either the ICJ decides it has no jurisdiction in the matter, or it rules in favour of Cambodia. The former, it reasons, would simply maintain the status quo, while the latter could unify Thai nationalist factions, stirring up currents strong enough to force the two states to a showdown over the temple’s surroundings.

“The nationalists would certainly urge the government not to respect such a ruling and call on the army to send troops to protect the disputed area. If Yingluck [Shinawatra, Thailand’s prime minister] and the army leaders comply with the ICJ, they would likely be branded as cowards and for lacking patriotism,” reads the paper, written by Chulalongkorn University international relations professor Puangthong Pawakapan.

“On the other side of the border, Cambodian leaders are not expected to sit idly but would try to assert Cambodia’s sovereignty over the area should the verdict go in their favour,” the paper continues.

“Another border clash is, therefore, likely to take place and ASEAN and/or the United Nation[s] Security Council may need to assist.”

Thai Ambassador to Cambodia Touchayoot Pakdi declined to comment on the paper yesterday, and spokesmen for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers and Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached.

In 1962, the ICJ granted ownership of Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia, but did not rule on the land in its immediate vicinity. The issue came to the fore in 2008 when Thailand supported Cambodia’s bid to have the landmark inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a move that Thai nationalists labelled a forfeiture of sovereignty.

Uproar over the temple caused fighting to break out several times between 2008 and 2011, resulting at times in deaths on both sides and displacements in Cambodia.

However, Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer said yesterday that renewed border clashes – while not beyond the realm of possibility – were unlikely, largely because the Thai nationalist domestic crises that fuelled prior clashes had largely cooled.

“I can’t rule [clashes] out, but it’s a kind of doomsday scenario,” he said, noting that current domestic political issues in Thailand would take precedence in citizens’ minds.

“There’ll be backlash, there’ll be a reaction if [the ruling] goes against Thailand, but it’ll be a short-lived thing,” he continued, noting that Thailand and Cambodia still have issues like the demarcation of their sea border to deal with. “If [the Thais] don’t accept international adjudication, then what will be the method of settling these other potential disputes?”



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