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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 27, June 25, 2011

The Thai-Cambodian Border Dispute: From Friction to Fire

Tuesday 28 June 2011


by Panchali Saikia

The recent ASEAN Summit held in Jakarta in May 2011 was dominated by the Thai-Cambodian issue, but it failed to reach a consensus about how to resolve it. Before the summit, both Thailand and Cambodia agreed to accept an Indonesian observer team to monitor a ceasefire. But, weeks later there was another military confrontation along the border. The armed confrontation was witnessed between February 4 and 7, 2011 near the Preah Vihear temple and from April 22 to May 3, 2011 near the Ta Mon and Ta Krabei temples in Oddar Meanchey province of Cambodia, killing dozens of civilians and soldiers and displacing thousands on both sides of the border. It is critical to explore the history of the dispute alongside the present fester on the border. What are the major issues driving the confrontation? How much does the internal stability within these countries affect the bilateral conflict? How is the regional organisation of South-East Asia going to mediate between the two? Where is the conflict heading towards?

The Thailand-Cambodia dispute—over the 4.6 sq km of land surrounding the 11th century old Hindu temple ‘Preah Vihear’ Khmer as it is known in Cambodia, or ‘Khao Phra Viharn’ as known in Thailand—has become a weapon for domestic political gain in both countries. The subject of the dispute was initially confined to the sovereignty over the temple which is situated between the Choam Khsant district (Preah Vihear province) in northern Cambodia and Thailand’s northeastern Kantharalak district (Sisaket province). The Preah Vihear temple was built during the reign of the Khmer empires and it sits on a cliff-top of Dandrek Mountain, which constitutes the border between Thailand and Cambodia.

The debate over the temple originated when Siam (Thailand) and the French colonial authorities ruling Cambodia formed a Joint Border Commission and signed the border settlement agreement of 1904 and 1907. The border settlement treaty, signed on February 13, 1904, stated that the border would follow the watershed line of the Dandrek Mountain between the basins of Namsen and the Mekong on one hand and the Nam Moun on the other. Although the Articles of the treaty did not mention the Preah Vihear temple, geographically it placed nearly all of the temple area on Thailand’s side, while the treaty signed on March 25, 1907 placed the chain of Dandrek Mountain along with the Preah Vihear temple as part of Cambodia. After the withdrawal of the French troops from Cambodia in 1954, Thailand claimed sovereignty over the territory and its troops occupied the temple and its surrounding area. The case took a volatile turn when Cambodia protested and forwarded the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Hague.

Preah Vihear Dispute and ICJ

ON June 15, 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared the Preah Vihear temple as Cambodian territory and asked Thailand to remove its troops. The judgment of the Court provoked violent protest in Thailand resulting in refusal to accept the Court’s decision to give sovereign rights of the temple to Cambodia. Thailand also protested that Cambodia presented an invalid map which violated the border commission’s working principle and the 1904 convention, according to which geographically nearly all of Phreah Vihear belonged to Thailand. The Court’s decision was limited to the sovereignty over temple ruins and did not pertain to that over the adjacent territorial land, which remained as part of Thailand.

Nevertheless, both the parties entered into various agreements to mitigate the conflict. For instance in 1976, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was signed, and this established that the inter-state conflicts would be resolved without any violence. In 2000, both the countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that established the Joint Border Commission (JBC) to resolve overlapping territorial disputes. In May 2004, the temple became a permanent border crossing with the establishment of a joint panel administration. In 2008, a joint communiqué was signed to register the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But, demarcation rights have remained theoretical with the dispute being aggravated by domestic politics and intensifying nationalism in both the countries. In 2008, Cambodia’s decision to declare the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site aggravated the already-existing political differences within Thailand on the issue. The protests in Thailand forced the government to withdraw its support for Cambodia’s proposal. Since then, there has been sporadic violence in the territory surrounding the temple. The international interventions in the Thai-Cambodian border dispute have instead led to heated debates with the 1962 ICJ judgment and in 2008 over declaring the temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site..

National Politics and Bilateral Conflict

THE border conflict was exploited to rally support in the countries’ national elections, for instance, in Thailand to remove Thaksin Shinawatra and his political allies from power in September 2006. Thaksin’s emphasis on business interests rather than a firm stand on the issue and his efforts to negotiate with Cambodia invited accusations that he was sacrificing Thailand’s sovereign interests. The Thai Army provoked ‘hostility’ as an instrument of nationalism which has in fact now become a tool for regime-preservation. The strained domestic politics with rumours of coup have driven the conflict towards a domain of uncertainties. The outcome of the upcoming Thai election in July 2011 is going to have a major impact on the negotiations between the two countries. The Pheu Thai Party (PTP) and its supporters (Red Shirts) are perceived as pro-Cambodian due to the close relationship between former Premier Thaksin and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Thai military will try to delay the election since it fears that the PTP might return to power. Present Prime Minister of Thailand Abhist Vejjajiva’s failure to bring any effective resolution to the conflict has led to accusations of using a soft approach towards Cambodia. The People’s Alliance for Democracy, known as ‘Yellow Shirts’, and the alliance supporters of the democratic government, also protested against Vejjajiva’s inability to win the tussle to release the nationalist leaders who were arrested by Cambodia for illegally crossing the border. The uncertainties of Thai politics, with a constant threat of military coups, have complicated the situation with low impetus for negotiations.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s internal issues have also hindered the efforts to resolve the conflict. Prime Minister Hun Sen is accused of manipu-lating the dispute in his own interest. Although the border dispute has allowed the government to prove its ability to defend the country’s sovereignty, an aggressive step towards demarcation might lead to negative public opinion towards the current government in Cambodia like in the case of its eastern border demarcation with Vietnam. Many local people along the eastern border claimed to have lost their farming land because of the government’s decision. With Cambodia running for its local election next year and general elections in 2013, its approach towards resolving the dispute will seriously affect its internal issues.

Preah Vihear, Thai-Cambodian Conflict and the ASEAN

THE simmering Thai-Cambodian divergence will have a tremendous impact on regional stability if it is not resolved as soon as possible. It has challenged the prospects of achieving an integrated ASEAN Community—politically, economically and culturally—by 2015 as well as challenged the ASEAN’s credibility as a regional organisation to settle future disputes. There has been serious concern that the failure to mitigate the dispute will lead to a dangerous precedent undermining the regional institution’s future role to settle disputes. Although the leaders in Bangkok acknowledged Indonesia’s mediation, the continuous protest and opposition from the Thai military hindered their decision of involving any third party. Cambodia also refused to accept Bangkok’s request to remove its military troops from the conflict zone as a prerequisite for third-party mediation.

Both the international community and ASEAN have failed in their efforts to mediate in the Thai-Cambodian conflict. It still remains a question as to what kind of intervention from the international community and ASEAN will help in a peaceful settlement of the dispute. While Cambodia insists that the UN involvement will facilitate cooperation, Thailand stresses on a bilateral approach. The ASEAN has limited its conflict resolution efforts and interference in internal affairs of its members because of its principle of non-intervention. However, Indonesia, the present ASEAN chair, must review the organisation’s non-intervention policy to improve the dispute settlement mechanism. The issue needs to be settled immediately as next year, when Cambodia heads the regional forum, the conflict may get even more complicated and third-party mediation might then become even more difficult. The ASEAN should soon establish and deploy a peacekeeping force in the disputed areas to avoid any armed confrontation. Both formal and informal dialogue should be encou-raged by promoting commerce, diplomacy and people-to-people interactions.

Where is the Conflict Heading?

THE threat of another armed confrontation prevails with heated debates between both the countries. The crux of the conflict is now not about losing or gaining the temple or territory, but about national prestige—‘ours’ or ‘theirs’. Increase in military build-up along the borders and use of barrage of artillery shells in the armed clashes have resulted in deaths of both soldiers and local people. The conflict has led to displacement of people in huge numbers. If the confrontation along the border continues, it will result in further difficulties, such as insurgency, refugee problem, illegal trade and drug smuggling.

An immediate demarcation of the boundary is not a priority for the local population settled in the border region so long as their livelihoods are unhindered. Economic relations between the two countries too remain less affected as is evident from the fact that the bilateral trade volume has increased by 35 per cent since last year despite the conflict. The overlapping territory should be declared a peace zone, the temple border should be designated as an open border and joint management efforts should be prioritised before demarcation.

The Thai-Cambodian border dispute is going to dominate the international media attention as the next few months will witness a series of meetings along with the upcoming Thailand election. On April 28, 2011, Cambodia filed an application to the ICJ for interpretation on the 1962 ICJ judgment. The ICJ will soon give its decision which will be based on an oral hearing from both the parties. On the other hand, the UNESCO’s 35th World Heritage meeting from June 19-29, 2011 will discuss the Thai-Cambodian border management issue which may bring some positive results. All these efforts will go in vain if either of them refuses to abide by the ICJ or the UN decisions. However, it is also important that the domestic instability in both countries subsides before any such talks.

Panchali Saikia is a Research Officer, South-East Asia Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail:

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