After pledging to follow a UN court order Monday to withdraw “immediately” from a newly created demilitarized zone around Preah Vihear temple, Cambodian and Thai officials indicated yesterday that there will be no speedy drawdown of military forces.
The International Court of Justice drew the new zone around the temple and the hotly contested borderland next to it in hopes of preventing more of the deadly clashes that have become nearly synonymous with the area over the past three years.
In addition to the withdrawal of both Thai and Cambodian soldiers, the ICJ urged both sides to resume their stalled border negotiations and welcome the Indonesian observers they agreed in February to host around the temple to monitor an unofficial cease-fire.
Though the court issued the ruling, it did not specify in what order it should be followed, and Bangkok and Phnom Penh each have their own ideas as to how events should now proceed.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia would withdraw its troops from the area only after the Indonesian observers were firmly in place, a necessary move, he insisted, to avoid a risky security vacuum.
He said Cambodia sent Jakarta an official invitation immediately after Monday’s court ruling and expected a reply “soon.”
“We will implement the court’s decision, but we must wait until the presence of Indonesian observers,” said Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense. “If there are no observers…we cannot continue to the next phase.”
In Thailand, meanwhile, the Bangkok Post reported that outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said troops could only start moving out once the logistics were worked out by the General Border Committee, a military-to-military meeting of Thai and Cambodian officials set up to discuss security issues.
Both the Cambodian and Thai positions appear susceptible to delays. And with no solid deadlines in the ICJ court order, there is no telling how long the withdrawal could take.
Delays are not new to negotiations between the two neighbors over Preah Vihear.
After both sides signed off on the Asean-brokered plan for Indonesian observers in late February, Cambodia immediately-and repeatedly-accepted all of Jakarta’s terms. But Thailand has since held up their arrival by refusing to let the observers in.
With a legally binding ruling from the UN’s top court now backing the withdrawal plan, Thailand may finally change its mind on the observers. But even if it does, Bangkok’s call for another meeting of the General Border Committee may still scuttle a troop withdrawal.
Since Thailand’s top brass failed to show up at their last scheduled GBC meeting in Jakarta in April, Cambodia has publicly sworn off bilateral border talks, insisting it lacked a serious partner in Bangkok.
Mr Siphan did not rule out another GBC meeting yesterday, but he dismissed it as a mere delaying tactic by Bangkok.
“They are going to say like this, like that,” he said. “It is a challenge to the ICJ ruling.”
Meanwhile, Bangkok and Phnom Penh are taking what good news they can from Monday’s ruling. While Thailand played up the court’s call for renewed border talks, which it has long favored over international venues like the ICJ, Cambodia has described the ordered withdrawal as the cease-fire it has been asking for.
Cambodia may not have gotten the unilateral Thai withdrawal it asked for when it turned to the ICJ in April. But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Cambodia still came out on top.
“They [Cambodia] got what they wanted,” he said. “Thailand has to remove its troops from the area. The ICJ dismissed Thailand’s request not to consider Cambodia’s complaint. Moreover, the troop withdrawal will reduce the role of the Thai military in Thai policy toward Cambodia.”
Even so, he said, the ruling was “just another new beginning.”
Success, Mr Pavin said, “all depends on the domestic situation in Thailand, [whether] nationalist groups will go on the street once again to reject the ICJ verdict.”
The Sam Rainsy Party was quick to reject the verdict here.
In a statement dated Monday, it called the ruling a “shameful defeat” for Cambodia, even calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down for his “incompetence” in defending the country’s territory.
“Following three years of aggression by Thailand and resulting violation of Cambodia’s territory, today’s inconsistent and shocking decision by the ICJ unacceptably put the aggressor and the victim on the same footing,” it said.
Lt Gen Sucheat dismissed the charge.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “[Prime Minister Hun Sen] has already said that Cambodia does not want war. We only want a border of peace and development, and the court’s decision is in line with what we want.”