UN court orders Cambodia and Thailand to withdraw troops from disputed border temple

Updated On: Jul 19, 2011

The top judicial body of the United Nations has ordered Cambodia and Thailand to withdraw troops from a disputed border temple, establishing a demilitarized zone along the mountainous region.

The Thai and Cambodian Foreign Ministers attended the court session, and both indicated their countries would abide by the decision.

The two countries have clashed numerous times in recent years near an ancient Hindu temple, called Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Phra Viharn in Thailand. In 1962, the ICJ ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia.

But the 1962 judgement did not address the sovereignty of the land surrounding the temple, which is the subject of the on-going dispute. The dispute flared up again in 2008, when the United Nations declared the temple a World Heritage site, sparking nationalist reactions on both sides.

Earlier this year, Cambodia requested the ICJ review the original ruling, amid fresh fighting between February and April. At least 28 people were killed in related border clashes this year.

The ICJ is still considering the case and will make further judgements regarding who owns the territory. But it has urged immediate provisional measures to defuse tensions between both sides. The court warned that until it has given a final decision, it must remain informed of all matters regarding the case.

The judges also ordered Thailand not to obstruct Cambodia’s free access to the temple. Although Cambodia manages the temple, Thailand controls the main road leading to it.

Report: U.N. Court Orders Troops From Temple on Thai-Cambodian Border [New York Times [New York Times, 18 July 2011]

Report: Demilitarised zone around Preah Vihear created [Phnom Penh Post, 18 July 2011]

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore said: “It’s a good ruling that both sides have to retreat. The court ruling complements the changing political situation in Thailand and should bring some stability.”

But Michael Montesano, another visiting fellow at ISEAS, warned that the ruling could annoy some in Cambodia: "One can understand why the Cambodians might feel a bit bitter about this ruling, however, because the tensions over the temple emanate from Thai domestic politics. They are really the opening of an old sore on the part of the Thais for domestic political purposes. And the Cambodians now find themselves being treated no differently from the Thais by the International Court of Justice."

But officially, Cambodia has welcomed the decision. Foreign Minister Hor Namhong called it a "permanent ceasefire" and "tantamount to the cessation of aggression of Thailand against Cambodia".

Report and Analysis: International Court Rules on Cambodia-Thailand Border Dispute [Voice of America, 18 July 2011]

Commenting on the decision, outgoing Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva noted the call for a provisional demilitarised zone is only a temporary measure and is not binding on Thai sovereignty. Abhisit said he would be meeting Thai military and civilian officials to discuss measures in the wake of the ruling.

Abhisit added that a practical mechanism is needed to address withdrawal of troops on both sides. He pointed to the existing Thai-Cambodian General Border Committee (GBC) as the most suitable forum for negotiations.

Report and Analysis: ICJ orders all troops out [Bangkok Post, 19 July 2011]

The last GBC talks were facilitated by Indonesia in its role as current ASEAN chair.

In the latest ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said Cambodia and Thailand should continue cooperation with ASEAN and allow ASEAN observers access to the provisional demilitarized zone.

The ICJ's ruling comes as leaders meet at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, an annual security dialogue for ASEAN countries and their neighbours. The border situation between the two countries is on the agenda for this year's ARF, along with territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The United States has called on both sides to "continue dialogue and exercise maximum restraint in order to peacefully resolve their disputes and strengthen regional stability". The US State Department also voiced support for Indonesia and ASEAN's efforts to mediate between Cambodia and Thailand.

Report: US hopes Thai-Cambodia rift solved peacefully [AFP, 19 July 2011]

Press Release: (Cambodia v. Thailand) Request for the Indication of Provisional Measures[ICJ, 18 July 2011]   

Text of Decision: (Cambodia v. Thailand) Request for the Indication of Provisional Measures [ICJ, 18 July 2011]

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