NEARLY 100 years after French cartographers drew a border between the kingdom of Siam and the French protectorate of Cambodia, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague has ruled that a one-square-kilometre patch of a scrubland surrounding the ancient temple of Preah Vihear is, along with the temple itself, Cambodian. The UN’s highest court did however reject Cambodia’s further claim to the remainder of the disputed 4.6-square-kilometre area. That little patch's fate, like another 100km stretch of border, is now likely to be determined through negotiations.
The upshot of the ruling, which has been anticipated for years and was broadcast live on television across Thailand and Cambodia, is that Cambodia gets a small piece of brush surrounding the temple that the ICJ had already ruled was in its territory, back in 1962. Thailand must write off the very same patch, which it must have expected all along. On the bright side, were one to be feeling vindictive about it, Thailand can justifiably say that the ruling did not favour Cambodia, and that in fact it denied some of its demands. In any event, both sides at least accepted the outcome and a Thai general even mustered a smile at a ceremony in the field.
The 11th-century Hindu temple in question, devoted to Lord Shiva (the “Destroyer” or “Transformer” in Hindu mythology), has been a long-standing obstacle to normal relations between Thailand and Cambodia. Tensions escalated in 2008, when the Cambodian government, headed by its forever prime minister, Hun Sen, applied to have the temple recognised as a World Heritage Site by the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). From 2008 to 2011, a Thai government led by the Democrat Party and its royalist-military backers were looking to score political gains from any conflict with Cambodia, more than they were seeking peace with their neighbour to the south-east. A series of border clashes claimed lives of dozens of soldiers and led thousands of civilians on both sides to flee the area.
This ruling opens the door to transforming what has been called a love-hate relationship between two neighbours into something less passionate (less hateful, in particular). But the verdict comes at a time when both governments are facing crises of legitimacy. Hun Sen has reason to celebrate the ruling. It may well boost his standing after he won re-election in July by a surprisingly thin margin. As ever, it is Thailand’s domestic politics that remains the main source of tension between Thailand and Cambodia, and it may prove so again.
The current Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her Pheu Thai party government, have suffered badly as a result of a brazen and aborted attempt to ram through an amnesty bill. The motion would have paved the way for the return of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai prime minister who was deposed in a 2006 coup and as polarising a figure as is known in this part of the world. The mood among the ultra-royalists and -nationalists who oppose him, along with the Democrat Party camped in the streets of Bangkok, is already upbeat. They have thwarted the return of the man they most loathe (though they still have to figure out how to beat the Shinawatra clan in elections).
Ms Yingluck cannot be seen to be too friendly with Cambodia at such a time. Any misstep in relation to the sensitive issue of Thailand’s territorial integrity would stir up nationalist sentiment. It may provide the army with an excuse to intervene in a bid to maintain its heavy-handed role in Thai politics. For now, it looks likely that Thailand will be able to avert another coup, but that hardly seems like it should count as an accomplishment for a middle-income country with, eg, a rate of infant mortality that is nearly as low as Sweden’s.
But some rabble-rousing is all but guaranteed. The Thai Patriot Network, a nationalistic splinter group of the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy, marched the streets of Bangkok yesterday to “defend Thai territory”. The complaint they make, that accepting the ruling will be tantamount to Khai chat, or selling the country, is unlikely to stick, given the fair-minded composition of the ruling.
The dispute over the temple, like much else in Thai politics, is intrinsically linked to the figure of Mr Thaksin. The close relationship between Messrs Hun Sen and Thaksin—the living symbol of the Thai opposition—contributed to escalating tensions at the border zone until Yingluck became prime minister, in mid–2011. In response to an interim ICJ ruling at around the time that Yingluck took office, the two countries withdrew their military forces from a demilitarised zone covering some 17 square kilometres of territory near the temple. Pou Sothirak, who wrote a book about the temple and the conflict, notes that the tussle is best understood in two phases: the time between the imperial map of 1908 and ICJ ruling of 1962; and the period that began with the 2006 coup. Incidentally, Cambodia only recognises a map drawn up by the French. Thailand prefers a map that it drew up unilaterally and unveiled in 2007. Theirs gives the disputed area to Thailand, of course.
The wiggle in the map
On a broader level, the wrangling is about more than the temple. Thai kings, mandarins, politicians and schoolbooks have long nurtured the narrative of Thailand as a nation that has lost territories to foreign powers and mischievous neighbours. The temple of Preah Vihear–in Thailand it is called Phra Wihan—is in fact located in one of Thailand’s former territories. In the early 20th century, Siam was forced to cede the Cambodian provinces of Battambang, Sisophon and Siam Reap to what was then the French protectorate of Cambodia.
The French mapmaker’s working principle was to demarcate the border along the watershed of the Dangrek range of mountains that forms the natural border between Cambodia and Thailand. But one of the four French officials assigned to draw the map put a wiggle in the borderline that placed the temple, without explanation and evidently on the wrong side of the watershed, in Cambodia. Siam did not contest the wiggle for more than 50 years; indeed, they thanked the French for the map and reproduced it happily. Thailand’s implicit approval was what undermined their claim to the temple back in 1962.
While the ICJ’s first ruling effectively legitimised the French wiggle, this week’s ruling at least reduced its size. It also instructed Cambodia and Thailand to resolve the remaining bits of their un-demarcated border so that they might have a mutually acceptable map. Not a moment too soon. ‘The Economist’