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Tensions escalate over Preah Vihear

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Cambodian soldiers mill about at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple near the Thai-Cambodian border in 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Tensions are escalating in Thailand over the Preah Vihear territorial dispute with Cambodia, as opposition leaders are calling for the government to reject an International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision that hasn’t even happened yet while Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is reportedly appealing for calm.

The prime minister, according to local media, was responding to a reported plan by “Yellow-Shirt” activists to hold a protest later this month, and a coalition of opposition lawmakers who called into question the authority of the international court’s jurisdiction over the dispute.

“Please demonstrate in a peaceful manner and don’t politicise it to put a pressure on the government,” Shinawatra was quoted as saying yesterday in the Pattaya Mail, while adding that her relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen – a friend of her brother, fugitive former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra – is not as important as Thailand’s national interests.

It’s the latest in an unfolding drama in Thailand that was sparked last week when the foreign minister announced plans to launch a public awareness campaign about the case to stave off any potential unrest in the event that the Thais lose.

After backlash over what many presumed to be a premature concession, the foreign minister entered damage-control mode, reportedly vowing to travel to the court himself and stare Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in the eye in order to make him lose his concentration.  

The ICJ will hold hearings this April to clarify a 1962 decision that granted Preah Vihear, an 11th-century temple, to Cambodia without specifying what to do with a 4.6-square-kilometre area surrounding the ruin. Fatal clashes in the past five years prompted Cambodia to seek clarification from the court in 2011 about the ruling.

A political tinderbox in Thailand, Preah Vihear arouses far less emotion for Cambodians, who consider ownership a “done deal since the 1960s”, said political analyst Chea Vannath.

“Cambodia feels that it’s not a Cambodia-specific issue, it’s more related to politics in Thailand,” she said.

“The ruling party did the right thing for everybody already, that’s why there is no protest, there’s no concern.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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