Thailand cleared the last constitutional hurdles to holding border talks with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple, but differences resurfaced Thursday over the minutiae of international treaties and maps delineating the border, hinting at a long and protracted negotiation process.
Thailand’s parliament gave a mandate to the government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat late Tuesday to negotiate border issues with Cambodia, both in the short term to resolve a months-long military standoff near the Preah Vihear temple, and in the long term to demarcate the contested border.
“I feel hopeful and bulletproof at the same time,” said Virachai Plasai, director of the Treaties and Legal Affairs Department at the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry.
“Hopeful on the international plane, meaning we should be able to make some progress, and bullet-proof on the internal plane,” because Parliament approved the mandate with an overwhelming majority, he said from Bangkok.
The Thai had previously argued that under its constitution, it could not commit to any deal with Cambodia without approval from the legislature. The way is now clear for the work of the Joint Boundary Commission, which is set to commence talks Nov 10 to 14.
“I’m ready to negotiate,” Virachai said, adding he would offer to his Cambodian counterparts to visit Phnom Penh before Nov 10 to best prepare the talks.
But, he added, negotiating won’t be easy work as both sides disagree on what documents to work from regarding the border’s demarcation.
Cambodia uses a map based on demarcations completed a century ago by France, which places Preah Vihear temple and the disputed area of Veal Entry, or Eagle Field, firmly inside Cambodia. The International Court of Justice used that map in 1962 when it ruled that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia.
Phay Siphan, spokesman of the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh, said the map “we’ve been using is 100 years old, and international organizations recognize that.”
Thailand four times did not object to the map, Phay Siphan added: in a French-Siam treaty in 1937, another in 1946, in the ICJ decision of 1962 and the memorandum of agreement signed between Thailand and Cambodia in 2000.
“We’re not forcing the Thais to obey the demarcations of the map, but they already signed it,” Phay Siphan said.
Virachai, however, said Thursday that Cambodia’s French-drawn map was irrelevant. “Both sides can bring any map to the table [based on the 2000 MOU]. If the Cambodian side wants to bring that map to the table, we cannot prevent that. But we will not bring it to the table because we believe it is not relevant,” Virachai said.
“We will not accept this map as representing a legally binding boundary,” he said.
Virachai also said that Thailand would abide by the ICJ decision, but that it applied only to the temple, and not the border. Negotiations, Virachai said, could take years to resolve, noting that talks with Laos on a dispute border area, which both countries fought a war over, were now entering their second decade.