The International Court of Justice (ICJ) will read its verdict on the ownership of the areas surrounding the Preah Vihear temple on Monday, following Cambodia's request to the court to interpret its 1962 ruling over the temple ownership with Thailand. Here, VIRACHAI PLASAI, head of the Thailand team, talks to the Bangkok Post about his experiences in this case and his expectations after the ruling.
A group of Buddhist monks at the Preah Vihear temple. The International Court of Justice will issue a ruling on the controversial area surrounding the temple on Monday. AFP/ TANG CHHIN SOTHY
How do you feel about heading the Thai legal team? Is it a daunting task? I look at this as just another assignment in my career. The only unusual thing is that it is neither a pure legal job nor a pure diplomatic assignment. It is a mixture of both. In fact, no one in this country has had this experience for nearly half a century. In this sense, I had to completely reinvent the role. I nevertheless welcomed it, as I like to see myself as a professional football player who takes whatever job the manager entrusts him with, and considers himself lucky for having it. No matter how big or small the task, I take it seriously and do the best I can. I would call this a kind of Franck Ribery attitude on the contemporary football scene.
In this spirit, I see each of my oral presentations before the court as just one of the many statements I have had to make throughout my career. The same thing applies to our written statements.
It is true that being my country's agent before the ICJ is by far the most important assignment I have ever been given, and one that comes with the heaviest pressure imaginable. But I try not to focus on that aspect, because that would distract me from my duties. In short, I just go out there and play my best game. No questions asked.
Are there additional points you feel the team did not have a chance to present to the court? We sincerely believe that we have left no stone unturned. For years, we sent people around the globe to conduct all kinds of research to build up a bank of factual evidence to back our case, including, of course, the ICJ archives and our own archives at local and national levels. We spent thousands of hours sorting out and discussing these items, and thousands of hours more shaping them up into a coherent and credible body of evidence. An equal number of hours was spent discussing and deciding on the key legal arguments on the basis of those pieces.
All in all, we submitted more than 1,300 pages to the court on top of many hours of oral pleadings.
Virachai Plasai: ‘Whatever happens, Thailand and Cambodia will have to co-exist.’’
What do you think Thailand's chances are of winning the case? I do not see this as a potential win or loss for our country. Rather, I see the whole process as an opportunity for Cambodia and Thailand to bring about peace on the basis of the justice that I hope the court will render. This in turn will contribute to the stability of our region. The two countries can then turn to focusing on how we can best live and prosper together as Asean brothers.
However the court rules, what do you see as challenges during this case and going forward? Will the planned negotiations with Cambodia help keep things in check for both countries? Whatever happens, Thailand and Cambodia will have to coexist. After the reading of the judgement, the two countries should consult each other about what course of action to take. For this purpose, existing mechanisms such as the Joint Commission or the General Border Committee may be used.
Are you concerned about the movements by certain nationalistic groups in Thailand? Thailand is a democracy and an open society. Views expressed by my countrymen in accordance with their constitutional rights are always welcomed by the litigating team. In building our case at the ICJ, the team listened to all these views and tried to accommodate as many as we could. The path taken to reach our goals might not be shared by all, but the goals are the shared essence. We firmly believe Thailand's case before the ICJ reflects the views and wishes of a largest possible group of people who have expressed their interests in the case. It is truly based on a national agenda.
What lessons can be learnt from this case that international law and international relations students should know about? It's all about what is and what is not res judicata of the 1962 judgement. Is the 1:200,000 map part of what has been decided with binding force? What the court will or will not say on this matter will be crucial for future development of international law.
Of equal importance is the question of legitimacy regarding interpretation under Article 60 of the ICJ Statute: can a party raise the issue of interpretation of a judgement after more than 50 years of silence? Would this bring about instability from lack of finality in international judicial settlement? These are interesting questions for international law students and practitioners alike.
Would you like to add anything else? I would urge the Thai public to try to acquire as much knowledge as they can about the case before watching the reading of the judgement on Monday. They can visit the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the ICJ, where information of all kinds is available about the case. I also urge them not to jump to any conclusions immediately after the reading, but rather to pause and reflect about what the court says. The ruling might not be black and white; it could represent endless different shades of grey. This is where wisdom and caution are called for.