Will the ICJ Preah Vihear Temple Ruling Bring Hope or Despair?

By Pou Sovachana

As both Cambodia and Thailand brace for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on the issue of Preah Vihear temple, the center of attention focuses on who owns the contested 4.6-square-km plot of land adjacent to the temple.

Today, the ICJ is expected to hand down its decision. Whether the ruling will bring about hope for a satisfying resolution allowing Cambodia and Thailand to restore good neighborly relations, or produce a renewed sense of despair for more conflicts to erupt between the two sides, is still anyone’s guess.

To better understand the possible outcomes of the ICJ decision, one should thoroughly review the recent initiatives undertaken by both governments and assess the emerging debates regarding the possible outcomes of the ruling.

In an effort to prevent more difficulties as a result of the ICJ ruling, in recent days, the prime ministers of both Cambodia and Thailand announced that the two countries would respect whatever decision the ICJ makes and committed themselves to maintaining peace and stability at the border. The two foreign ministers also met and openly talked with one another about preventing any ICJ decision from becoming the basis for more conflicts between the two countries.

Inside Thailand, the government has initiated various measures, including the protection of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, the dissemination of calming information in the provinces bordering Cambodia and the scheduled live broadcast of the ICJ ruling on television. Thailand wants to maintain good ties with Cambodia and prepares to discuss the border issue through the Joint Boundary Commission. Motivated to maintain a healthy relationship with Phnom Penh, Bangkok also tries to avoid military confrontation with Cambodia and prefers to solve the problem through negotiation. There is indication that the Thai military would lean toward following Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s soft stance on the issue. However, the Thai army has prepared its troops for any worst-case scenario.

Inside Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has urged Cambodia’s armed forces and those who live along the border to remain calm and avoid any action that may lead to clashes with the Thai military. Cambodia has always adhered to its firm position to build a peaceful and clear borderline, transforming it into a border of peace, friendship, cooperation and development. The Cambodian side prefers to avoid military confrontation with Thailand and hopes that the court ruling can help resolve this matter peacefully.

If the ICJ rules in favor of Cambodia, more street protests could erupt due to ultra-nationals in Thailand protesting against Cambodia. Patriotic groups within Thai society could put pressure on the Yingluck administration not to abide by the court decision. The loss in the case this time could also push anti-government groups to renew their campaign of accusing the government of not doing a good enough job to protect Thai sovereignty, and more people could rise up to overthrow the Yingluck government, as reported in the Bangkok Post on November 6.

If the ICJ rules in favor of Thailand, the Cambodian government will have to explain this decision in a way that satisfies the general public. Otherwise, domestic public opinion could undermine the credibility of the government. It is unlikely that any street protests on the same scale we see in Thailand could flare up. However, the general public is currently optimistic that the court will rule in Cambodia’s favor.

Although both governments have agreed to maintain good friendship and not allow the ruling to affect their improved bilateral relations, this agreement could only be sustained if goodwill from both sides remains intact and if both sides stand ready to address the court decision diplomatically with the support from the two armies, the people of the two countries and Asean. More importantly, both countries, being members of the U.N., are required by law to comply with the ICJ’s judgment. Any country that does not uphold its obligation to abide by the decision of an organ of the U.N. will certainly damage its international reputation.

In conclusion, the outcome of today’s ruling may not satisfy everyone, but peace between Cambodia and Thailand depends on a genuine willingness to compromise from both countries. To have a stable border, the military threat must be removed and sincere dialogue must prevail. After the ICJ hands down its decision, hope for a lasting solution depends on both countries’ ability to manage and control their own internal domestic politics and ultimately respect the ICJ judgment. Otherwise, more conflicts could arise. The Cambodian government has indicated that it will heed the court ruling but Thailand may not do so due to internal pressure. Neglecting the court decision could damage Thailand’s international standing and rupture its bilateral relations with Cambodia again.

Pou Sovachana is a research fellow at The Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

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