In a bid to stave off domestic political unrest should the International Court of Justice rule against Thailand in its long-running border dispute over territory surrounding the Preah Vihear temple, the Thai Foreign Ministry has launched a public awareness campaign explaining the ins and outs of the case.
The campaign is supposed to run throughout the year, leading up to the mid-April court hearings at The Hague in the Netherlands, and continuing until the subsequent ruling, which is expected in October.
“This is to inform the Thai public, and we do not know about the results of the decision yet, no one knows that, but we have to inform about the other steps,” Thailand’s new ambassador to Cambodia, Touchayoot Pakdi, told the Post yesterday after a meeting with Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong. “No matter what the result will be, peace must be maintained.”
Thai officials are rolling out the campaign across several platforms, including state-run media outlets, leaflets, books and documentaries.
In theory, the public will learn about the history of competing claims at the heart of the century-old dispute, which started over the ownership of the 11th-century Hindu ruin, and escalated into a fight over the area around it. In reality, analysts say, the Thais hope to show how hopeless their case is, and to get a handle on a potential political crisis that members of the “Yellow Shirts” opposition could exploit.
Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told the Bangkok Post as much on Tuesday, saying: “What frightens us is that some groups will manipulate people to do bad things if they don’t like the verdict.”
Preah Vihear and Thai politics have long been intertwined, pointed out Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at New South Wales University in Australia. Any violence along the Thai-Cambodian border could have a negative impact on the administration of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
“The Thai government is undoubtedly under diplomatic pressure from both Beijing and Washington to settle this matter peacefully,” he said. “It is my assessment that the Yingluck government has other priorities and does not want the border issue to become a festering sore.”
In 2008, after UNESCO listed Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site in Cambodia, tensions between Thailand and Cambodia at the border erupted. The following years saw military skirmishes – some fatal for troops, some damaging to the temple – which rises out of a 525-metre cliff near the border. In 2011, clashes killed at least 10 people and displaced thousands of families.
That year, Cambodian officials sought clarification about the contested 4.6-square-kilometre area adjoining the temple, and the ICJ set up a provisional demilitarised zone.
When Yingluck and the Cambodia-friendly Pheu Thai party were sworn in in July 2011, however, tensions quickly thawed. The sister of fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who enjoys a friendly relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Yingluck has sought to mend ties with Cambodia.
Within the year, set to coincide with a celebration of the 1962 decision, 485 Cambodian soldiers and a number of Thai troops were redeployed from the provisional demilitarised zone on July 18, 2012. Most recently, Cambodia and Thai officials have met to discuss de-mining in the area ahead of the arrival of international observers from Indonesia.
Koy Koung, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said yesterday that Cambodia has no similar educational ventures planned, because there is no need.
“Our Cambodian people clearly understand about the Preah Vihear temple,” adding that Cambodians aren’t extremists, dismissing the threat of violence over the ruling. He would not comment on the public campaign, referring to it as an internal issue in Thailand.