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Thai-Cambodia dispute: Losing at the ICJ won't be a disaster

Publication Date : 16-01-2013


Bruised nationalism, championed by right-wing groups in Thailand, will never help Thailand and Cambodia to settle their dispute over the Hindu temple at Preah Vihear.

The proceedings, currently before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, might not be the best solution either, but they do offer one effective and peaceful way to end the conflict.

Conservative nationalist groups, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the Dhrammayatra group, are invoking nationalism to put pressure on the government to reject the ICJ's jurisdiction, as they fear the court may rule in favour of Cambodia.

Thailand and Cambodia are in the court battle over the border temple because Phnom Penh asked the court to clarify the scope and meaning of the 1962 judgement.

The court ruled that Preah Vihear was situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia, but Thailand has argued the land around the temple belongs to Thailand. Both sides will give oral testimony in the court in April, and the verdict is expected late this year.

Nationalist groups threatened the government that they would stage street protests unless the government rejects the court's jurisdiction.

Thailand would definitely lose the territory adjacent to the temple if the government complied with the court verdict, they said.

However, the discourse on territorial loss is a misleading perception for the Thai public. Even if the court ruled in favour of Cambodia, it would not make any major difference to the territory and boundary with Cambodia, as the nationalists are trying to say.

The area in dispute between the two countries is only 4.6 square kilometres adjacent to the Hindu temple. Cambodia based its argument on a French map as well as the Siamese-Franco treaties of 1904 and 1907. Phnom Penh told the court that the boundary line is in accordance with the map and the treaties that already existed when the court ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple was situated on the Cambodian side.

However Thailand argued the operative clause of the 1962 judgement did not mention the international boundary line. The court, therefore, had no reason to interpret the previous ruling in favour of Cambodia.

The Thai legal team said there had been no critical dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the vicinity of the Hindu temple for the past 50 years since the verdict.

After the verdict, the Thai Cabinet in 1962 complied with the court's judgement by relinquishing the one-quarter square kilometre of land where the Phreah Vihear sits to Cambodia and withdrawing its troops from that area.

The Thai legal team told the court in previous testimony that authorities in Phnom Penh had already accepted such compliance by Thailand.

There are two equal possibilities that the court could rule in favour of either Thailand or Cambodia. If Cambodia's interpretation makes sense to the court, the ICJ would rule that the land around Preah Vihear Temple matches the boundary line as it appears on the French map. In this regard, the disputed 4.6 square km area belongs to Cambodia.

If the court agrees with the Thai argument, the ICJ would dismiss the case. But such a judgement would not create any legal legitimacy for Thailand to claim the entire 4.6 square km of disputed land. It would continue to be in dispute and the two countries would need to find other solutions, such as bilateral negotiations to settle it.

The negotiations, if there were any in the future, could eventually lead to a boundary adjustment - but such a small adjustment to the boundary line should not result in any great sense of territorial loss for the Thai people.


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