Demilitarized zone established around temple
The International Court of Justice yesterday ordered both Thai and Cambodian troops out of a newly drawn demilitarized zone around the 11th-century temple of Preah Vihear and the violently contested land around it.
The decision fell short of Cambodia’s hopes that the UN’s top court would order only Thai troops out of the area. But it also dashed Thailand’s hopes that the court would throw the case out on grounds of jurisdiction.
Cambodia asked the Netherlands-based court to order Thai troops off its territory around the temple in late April, amid border clashes between the neighbors that left more than 20 soldiers dead and displaced nearly 100,000 civilians.
Instead, the court drew a demilitarized zone around the temple and, by a vote of 11 to five, ordered both sides to pull their troops out.
“The Court finds that both parties must immediately withdraw their military personnel currently present in the provisional demilitarized zone defined by it, and refrain from any military presence within that zone and from any armed activity directed at that zone,” the ICJ said in a statement released immediately after presenting its decision yesterday.
Given the recent fighting and the threat of more, the court added that “in order to ensure that no irreparable damage was caused, there was an urgent need for the presence of all armed forces to be temporarily excluded.”
The World Heritage Site was scarred by small arms and rocket fire during four days of border fighting in early February.
A map published along with yesterday’s decision diplomatically omits any border lines but draws the demilitarized zone around both the temple and most, if not all, of the disputed 4.6 square km immediately to its north and west.
Additionally, it orders Thailand not to obstruct Cambodia’s access to the temple itself to resupply “non-military personnel.”
By a vote of 15 to 1, the ICJ also urged the neighbors to resume stalled talks on demarcating their border and to let in the Indonesian observers they agreed in principle to host in February in order to monitor an unofficial cease-fire there.
Thailand has delayed the observers’ arrival by refusing to give them access to the disputed 4.6 square km.
In an interview broadcast on Cambodian television yesterday evening, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong, speaking from The Hague, welcomed the decision.
“Cambodia is very happy to accept the decision of the court, because we achieved our two major goals,” he said. “First, we gained a permanent cease-fire by having Thai troops ordered out of the area. Second, we can get Indonesian observers into the area, which we wanted for a long time.”
As for the new demilitarized zone, the minister called it a useful stop-gap measure to protect the temple from further damage but said Cambodian police stationed at the site would stay put.
Military officials declined to comment on the ruling.
Despite Thailand’s failed bid to have the case thrown out, Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi said his government would respect the court decision.
“Thailand is satisfied with the order…and of course Thailand will respect the decision of the court and honor the obligations placed upon it,” he said.
And though the court ordered troops to withdraw “immediately,” Mr Thani said that details, including a timetable for withdrawal, would have to be worked out in talks with Cambodia.
In June, The Bangkok Post quoted Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon vowing he would order his troops out of the disputed area only if the court ordered Cambodia to do the same.
Yesterday’s decision, however, still leaves unanswered the much larger matter of ownership of land around the temple.
Cambodia asked the court to settle that very question once and for all in its April 28 letter to the ICJ. But as that decision could take months, if not years, Phnom Penh also asked the court to order Thai troops out of the area in the meantime.
Specifically, Cambodia in April asked the court to “interpret” a 1962 decision in which it awarded ownership of the temple itself to Cambodia on the strength of a colonial-era French map. Though the map clearly places the disputed 4.6 square km inside Cambodia as well, the two countries disagree on whether the 1962 ruling specifically addresses its ownership.
Cambodia and Thailand made their cases for and against during a two-day hearing at The Hague in late May. Cambodia argued that the ICJ’s 1962 ruling awarded it both the temple and the land next to it, Thailand argued that the court had no jurisdiction to even rule on the matter.
In February, Cambodia tried and failed to have the UN Security Council intervene following armed clashes with Thai forces.
After hearing out both sides at its Washington headquarters, the Council decided to hand the problem off to Asean, which failed to make headway and watched helplessly as more deadly border fighting erupted in April.
It was at that point that Cambodia turned to the ICJ for help.