Even-handed temple ruling cools heat in Thailand, Cambodia

Even-handed temple ruling cools heat in Thailand, Cambodia

Both Thailand and Cambodia were claiming victory Monday after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on disputed border territory near an 11th-century temple, but tempers seemed to be cooling in both countries.

The court ruled that Cambodia's sovereignty extends to all of the natural promontory bearing the monument, but rejected its claim to a nearby hill, called Phnum Trap in Cambodian and Phu Makua in Thai.

The decision essentially leaves Thailand and Cambodia to decide between them on most of the 4.6 square kilometres adjacent to the temple that were the source of the recent conflict, analysts said.

"I think it was a success for the Thai team that they convinced the court not to rule on the sovereignty of the disputed territory," said Puongthong Pawakapan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.

"It's still considered overlapping territory, so the two sides will need to negotiate it further," she said.

Thailand may have lost a small portion of the territory it originally claimed, she conceded.

In Phnom Penh, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said on his Facebook page: "This is the victory of all the nation and the reward to the political maturity of the current Royal government of Cambodia."

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, was more constrained.

"For both governments, Phnom Penh and Bangkok, the common ground is peace," he said.

The ICJ is no stranger to the Preah Vihear temple conflict.

In 1962, when asked to arbitrate on the sovereignty of the 11th century Hindu temple perched on a cliff that defines the Thai-Cambodian border, the court judged in Cambodia's favour.

But the court stopped short of ruling on the border, which was not part of Cambodia's request, leaving open an opportunity for future disputes on the 4.6 square kilometres of land adjacent to the temple.

In 2011, Cambodia sought a clarification from the ICJ on the 1962 ruling, with regards to the disputed land.

The judgment comes as Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is reeling from more than a week of mounting protests against a government proposition to amnesty all political crimes, including corruption, committed from 2003 to 2013.

The bill is seen as designed to allow the return of her brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, living abroad to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power.

Ms Yingluck and her ruling Pheu Thai Party have backed away from the legislation, vowing not to push it into law if the Senate rejects it, but distrust is running deep among the anti-government protesters.

The relative equanimity of Monday's ruling avoided a destabilising effect on Yingluck's government that might have resulted if the decision had been more clearly against Thailand, observers said.

"This ruling is not going to play into the hands of the anti-government protesters," said Thitinan Phongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok.

"The protesters still have traction from the anti-amnesty movement but they have missed getting more fuel for the fire from the Preah Vihear ruling," he said.

The territorial dispute re-erupted in July 2008, when Cambodia submitted Preah Vihear for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site without resolving the sovereignty issue over the adjacent area, seemingly with Thailand's permission.

The listing provoked anti-government protests in Bangkok, armed clashes on the border and a steep deterioration in relations between the two neighbours.

Thai-Cambodian relations are much improved since then. The Cambodian People's Party, led by Hun Sen, and Thailand's ruling Pheu Thai Party, de facto led by Thaksin from overseas, are close.

"Both sides are satisfied with the court's decision," said Thai Foreign Minister Suraphong Tovichaichaikul, speaking at the Hague.

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