By The Nation
Published on May 1, 2011
Are Thailand and Cambodia set for a new legal showdown? It's difficult to predict if move will ensure peace
Many had thought the day would come. But now that Cambodia has submitted a request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for interpretation of the Court's judgement in 1962 on the Bangkok-Phnom Penh wrangling over the Preah Vihear Temple, there is cautious optimism at best. The past few days have seen violent clashes between both countries' troops at the border, which raises the question as to why people needed to die despite quite a few unexplored ways out. We only hope both nations have not gone too far to turn back and not been already addicted to the use of military might in this territorial conflict.
Obviously, Cambodia will be in a better position if the world court takes up its request. The 1962 verdict stated that the temple was situated on territory that was under its sovereignty. Phnom Penh celebrated the ruling while Thai leaders took it on the chin. The Thai side, however, will now have a chance to renew the legal fight for its decades-old "reservations" registered after the verdict. Old wounds will be reopened, but that may be better than having fresh ones inflicted on bilateral ties day after day.
There are a few immediate issues to watch. Firstly, how long will it take for the court to take up Cambodia's request? Secondly, if the court takes up the request, will it use the old evidence, which led to the 1962 verdict, or allow both countries to present their cases once again? Last but not least, since Cambodia is officially seeking legal help, will the border fighting stop?
In the event of a new Thai-Cambodian showdown at the ICJ, the process could take a long time. How that will affect Phnom Penh's rush to complete the World Heritage plan for the Preah Vihear Temple remains to be seen. But with soldiers killed and tens of thousands of villagers evacuated on both sides, a bigger concern should be about the on-going border tension. A protracted ICJ process means that the Thai-Cambodian border could remain a flash point, and innocent villagers will have to continue living in fears.
The ball is somehow back on the ICJ court. What appeared to be a considerably clear ruling in 1962 led to conflicts and controversies because the Thai side argued that there was nowhere that the court pinpointed Cambodia's sovereignty over surrounding areas. And the arguments over the surrounding areas have hampered border re-demarcation as well as the World Heritage plan for Preah Vihear. Armed conflicts that have flared up have resulted from overlapping claims of areas adjacent to the temple.
While the timing of Cambodia's move is questionable, returning the issue to the ICJ could be the only way to stop the loss of lives and suffering at the border, at least for now. The key thing is whether Bangkok and Phnom Penh can really return to the legal dispute for the sake of peace.
There are examples of ICJ verdicts being ignored, and international mechanisms to enforce them have been anything but effective. However, Cambodia's latest move will test both nations' sincerity and willingness to solve the decades-long conflict the way good neighbours are supposed to.
This is not going back to where it all began. This may take both neighbours far beyond 1962. That year's verdict followed years and years of disputes that all but tore neighbourly relations to pieces. The court in 1962 only, at least in the Thai view, took a stance on a small part of the problem. The border stretches far beyond the area where the Preah Vihear Temple is situated. The underlying issue is who'll get what and who'll lose what when different measures are applied. It was extremely difficult for the ICJ in 1962 and it won't be any easier for the court this time.