Thailand & Cambodia: End of Clashes over Preah Vihear?

30 Nov, 2013    ·   4203

Aparupa Bhattacherjee says that the verdict does not signal the end of Thai-Cambodian conflict

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

On 11 November 2013, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared its verdict on Preah Vihear case, a Hindu temple on the Thailand-Cambodia border. Several clashes on the border have taken the lives of quite a few civilians and soldiers from both countries. The verdict interpreted the 1962 ICJ judgement, and clearly mentioned that as the previous judgement had awarded the entire promontory to Cambodia, Thai troops should withdraw from these surrounding areas. However, Cambodia’s argument that the Phnom Trap (known as Phu Ma-khuea), a hill next to the Preah Vihear promontory, was also granted to them in the previous verdict was completely rejected by the ICJ. According to the court, the sovereignty of this hill should be peacefully negotiated between both authorities. The verdict, accepted by both the countries, is hoped to bring peace to the border areas.

The two pertinent questions that arise are: What are the civil society reactions? Will such a verdict ensure peace, and the betterment of the relationship between these two countries?

Civil Society Reactions
Prior to the verdict, there was rising fear of severe aggression between Thailand and Cambodia.  Several inhabitants on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border had evacuated their houses, anticipating violence. Fortunately, Thailand and Cambodia have declared their acceptance of the result and both the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen, have publicly pledged to negotiate with each other in order to avoid further conflicts.  Both the governments, especially Thailand, are more sceptical about internal, rather than external, threats.

The reason for the conflict over the temple was more political than historical. It began when the Cambodian government proposed to UNESCO that Preah Vihear be listed as a World Heritage site. The then pro Thaksin Thai government of Samak Sundaravej, demonstrated its support for this decision in a joint communiqué with Cambodia, which was portrayed as anti-national by opposition parties and ultra nationalists in Thailand. The temple was portrayed as symbol of national prestige. Thus there was a fear of the rise of anti-government sentiment among the masses. The present Thai government has been under pressure due to their attempt to introduce the amnesty bill and amend the constitution in order to help the ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. So, any rise of anti-governmental sentiments provoked by the ultra nationalists against the verdict would have made the scenario worse. Similarly, the recently re-elected Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen has been facing severe public protests due to rising corruption in the country. Thus, if the verdict would have not been in favour of Cambodia it would have fuelled major public anger and protest against the government.

Cross-Border Misunderstandings
There are several misunderstandings between the Thais and the Cambodians that have created a rift between these two countries. Although both countries share similar customs, traditions and beliefs there are nevertheless several incidents that have strained relations. Noteworthy among them are the anti Thai protest in 2003 that lead to the rupture of diplomatic relations between these two countries for two months. Secondly, a major issue that makes the relationship sour is the rising number of Cambodian migrants in Thailand. The porous border between Thailand and Cambodia gives easy access to several Cambodians to cross the border into Thailand in order to make a better living. The Thai government has on numerous occasions expressed their annoyance but till date the Cambodian government has been unable to restrict such passages. Cambodian migrants fulfil the huge demand for cheap labour in Thailand and also take away job opportunities from several Thai labourers. Thus, there is growing anger among the Thais against the Cambodians. Consequently, issues such as the Preah Vihear temple appeal to the sentiment of the people, which has been mobilised by some political parties. Thai-Cambodian relations have also been affected by the political parties in power. There has been rising hope for betterment of relations between these two countries since 2011, with the pro Thaksin Pheu Thai party coming to power in Thailand. As the re-elected Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen is a close ally of the former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, it seems that the prospects of betterment of the relationship depend on two factors: one, on the wearing away of the misunderstanding between civilians, and second, on who forms the government in these two countries and not on the present verdict.

Although the verdict has been depicted by both the Thai media and government as a ‘win-win situation’, that is not enough to pacify the Thais. Protests against the verdict have been reported in Thailand. Moreover, as Cambodia requested the ICJ to interpret the 1962 judgement, no verdict was given on the sovereignty of Phnom Trap hill. Though both governments have agreed to negotiate bilaterally on this issue, it seems to be a hurdle in the path of better relations between these two countries.