Thailand loses in ruling on disputed temple land

Crowds in Bangkok gathered to protest against a government-backed amnesty bill. Picture: Reuters
Crowds in Bangkok gathered to protest against a government-backed amnesty bill. Picture: Reuters
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Cambodia, not Thailand, has sovereignty over a disputed promontory around a 1,000-year-old temple, the United Nations’ top court has ruled in a unanimous decision on a long-simmering border dispute.

The International Court of Justice yesterday said a 1962 ruling by its judges gave Cambodia sovereignty over the Preah Vihear promontory and Thailand must withdraw any military or police forces stationed there.

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen welcomed the ruling, saying it “gives the frontier between the two countries a clear borderline”.

He said both countries have agreed to work to maintain peace at the historic temple. He told Cambodian troops to stay on their side of the border and “avoid any activity that would cause tensions”.

Thailand’s foreign minister, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, said the verdict offered “satisfactory results to both sides” and promised the two neighbours will work together to implement it.

In a televised address, Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra stressed the need for co-operation with Cambodia.

“Thailand and Cambodia share a 500-mile border,” she said, adding that the Asian neighbours “have to rely on each other for prosperity”.

The verdict comes at a bad time for Yingluck, who has faced street protests against a government-backed amnesty bill.

Opponents said the amnesty is designed to expunge her self-exiled brother and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s 2008 jail term for abuse of power while he was in office, to allow him to return a free man and make a political comeback.

Thaksin promoted close ties with Cambodia when he was prime minister, and his enemies have accused him of not defending Thai interests in connection with the border dispute.

However, last night the amnesty bill was rejected by Thailand’s upper house, the Senate.

Some of the thousands of demonstrators who have been out on the streets of the Thai capital over recent days want to topple Yingluck’s government and are accusing it of colluding with Thaksin and Cambodia to “sell” Thai land.

At least 1,000 ultra-nationalists among the protesters marched to the defence ministry yesterday to deliver a letter demanding that the military protects what they said was Thai sovereign territory.

That group included former members of the ultra-royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has a track record of whipping up anger to undermine governments Thaksin has led, both directly and indirectly. The PAD said it did not recognise the court in The Hague.

UN body Unesco put the temple, perched on a rocky plateau overlooking Thailand and Cambodia, on its World Heritage list in 2008, calling it “an outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture”. But the listing – intended to help protect the site – led to an escalation of tensions.

Cambodia went back to the court in 2011, following several clashes between its army and Thai forces. The court created a demilitarised zone around the temple after fighting left about 20 people dead and displaced thousands more, but subsequent talks about withdrawing troops went nowhere.

Soldiers from both countries were seen near the temple over the weekend ahead of the judgment, and villagers feared the ruling could trigger new clashes.

Preah Vihear is older than the world-renowned Angkor Wat temple complex, dating back to the 11th century.

Unesco described it as “particularly well preserved, mainly due to its remote location”. It said the site is “exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation”.

The court did not draw new maps yesterday, but said the promontory is bordered by steep slopes on three sides, and to the north by a border drawn up in 1907 by the French.

In Srah Kdol, a Cambodian village 12 miles from the temple, several families had left ahead of the verdict and others had dug bunkers for protection.

Cambodian Mann Vanna, 55, said he was happy with the decision. His eyes filling with tears, he said: “This ruling will end the bad blood that has flowed from the people of both countries. Thailand has to respect it.”