Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (L) and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen hold a meeting in Siem Reap. Photograph: Heng Chivoan / Phnom Penh Post
Amidst the controversy over the South China Sea that dominated last week’s ASEAN summit, Cambodia managed to at least partially deflect negative attention by negotiating the redeployment of troops from Preah Vihear.
In the most significant development on the disputed territory since the UN’s highest court ordered Cambodia and Thailand to withdraw troops from a Provisional Demiliatrised Zone last year, the government announced the mutual redeployment on Friday.
Both countries are now set to withdraw troops on July 18, exactly one year after the International Court of Justice ordered them to do so “immediately”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Friday that after meeting with his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, an in-principle agreement had been struck to redeploy troops from the 17.3-kilometre PDZ.
“I would like to stress that this issue [shows] the willingness of both parties to create a calm atmosphere that will benefit both sides,” he said. “The redeployment of troop does not mean withdrawing troops from individual country, but redeployment and replacement by police forces.”
The Cambodian government explained that redeployment on Saturday, saying it had agreed to move 485 troops from the PDZ and replace them with 255 police officers and 100 guards.
“This is the first step of redeployment [of] armed group from the area around Preah Vihear temple, which are Dragon Stair market, North Ancient Stair, East Ancient Stair and Keo Sikha Kiri Svarak pagoda,” a government press released stated.
Defence Minister Tea Banh told reporters outside the meeting in Siem Reap province that “the troop redeployment can be made without the presence of the Indonesian observers”, who are supposed to independently monitor the process.
Yingluck Shinawatra said that no matter how much trade prospered in the ASEAN, people need to be able to travel safely, free of conflict.
“So it is important that we and ASEAN grow together and sustain peace,” she said.
In February and April last year, fatal clashes erupted between Cambodian and Thai troops over the temple, displacing thousands.
Thai foreign affairs spokesman Thani Thongpakdee confirmed yesterday that his country would also redeploy troops, but could not provide specific numbers.
“My understanding is the defence minister will be meeting with the armed forces early this week to work out the details of the redeployment on the Thai troops,” he said.
Both countries lay claim to a 4.6-square-kilometre patch of territory surrounding the 11th-century temple, which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2008.
The agreement comes after a week in which Cambodia, as hosts of the ASEAN Regional Forum, has come under intense scrutiny for the failure of the 10 member states to put out a joint communiqué, after finding themselves at loggerheads over the South China Sea issue.
Cambodia has been accused of actively obstructing efforts to negotiate the joint communiqué and a binding Code of Conduct on how to resolve disputes in the oil-rich South China Sea, benefiting the interests of its allies in Beijing.
Citing an anonymous diplomat, The New York Times reported on Thursday that Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong had walked out of last-minute negotiations to sign off on a watered down version of the communiqué.
“China bought the chair, simple as that,” the diplomat told the newspaper.
A war of words erupted between Cambodia and the Philippines on Friday, with the latter accusing the current ASEAN chair of obstructing their efforts to include the Scarborough Shoal islands, which they have a territorial dispute with China over, in the communiqué.
Cambodia fired back at the Philippines, with Hor Namhong telling a press conference on Friday that the joint communiqué had been taken “hostage” by countries seeking to include a reference to the islands.
“Some countries still kept insisting on putting in the Scarborough Shoal issue, which is a bilateral dispute between the Philippines and China,” he said, adding that as a matter of principle, Cambodia did not intervene in bilateral disputes between member countries.
Though the summit failed to yield a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history, key elements of the CoC were negotiated, a more binding progression of a Declaration of Conduct signed by ASEAN and China in 2002.
An unofficial outline of the CoC suggests the 10 member countries agreed that if mediation failed, disputes could be resolved through international law.
That includes adhering to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which does not, however, apply to sovereignty claims over Scarborough Shoal.
It also compels signatories to respect and adhere to the Treaty of Amenity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia which establishes an ASEAN High Council to mediate disputes and was ratified by China in 2003.
But rather than a multilateral approach, China favours bilateral negotiations with each individual claimant, which in ASEAN includes the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said the Preah Vihear agreement would only partially heal the bad image Cambodia had attracted from its conduct during the summit.
“The subtext of that message is: We have a dispute, we settled it ourselves and we didn’t need outsiders,” he said, but noted the agreement followed a ruling of an international court.
But Thayer said that for at least the next six months, the Philippines was unlikely to trust Cambodia, which had threatened to walk out of meetings last week practically every time they tried to assert their position on the South China Sea.