Preah Vihear temple grounds belong to Cambodia, U.N. court rules

Thai riot police in Bangkok gird for clashes with anti-government protesters following Monday's decision by the International Court of Justice that the flashpoint border lands around the Preah Vihear temple belong to Cambodia. The decision fuels nationalist hostility toward an amnesty bill being debated in the Thai Senate that could allow exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return and make a political comeback. Thai nationalists accuse Thaksin of failing to defend Thai sovereignty over disputed territory.
(Nicolas Asfouri / AFP/Getty Images)

Border land around the cherished Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia and Thailand’s police and security forces must leave the territory, the United Nation’s highest court ruled Monday in a decades-old dispute between the Southeast Asian neighbors.

Leaders of both countries claiming sovereignty over the land around the UNESCO World Heritage site said they would respect the decision of the International Court of Justice and urged their citizens to refrain from violence.

But fears were rife that the ruling would reignite nationalist clashes of the type that took 28 lives in 2011 and prompted both sides to bolster troop deployments along the border.

“Cambodia had sovereignty over the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear,” Judge Peter Tomka wrote in the decision of the 17-member panel in The Hague, Netherlands.

“In consequence, Thailand was under an obligation to withdraw from that territory Thai military or police forces or other guards or keepers” stationed in the disputed 1.8-square-mile area, the court said.


The decision followed a Cambodian request for interpretation of the court’s 1962 ruling that the temple belonged to Cambodia. Thai forces had occupied the area after the 11th century temple’s inclusion in the World Heritage list in 2008 as “an outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed the ruling, saying it “gives the frontier between the two countries a clear borderline,” the Associated Press reported.

In an appeal for calm posted on her Facebook page, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also noted the importance of maintaining peace between the two countries that share a 500-mile border.

But senior Thai Foreign Ministry official Virachai Plasai, who led his country’s legal challenge at the U.N. court, said the Monday ruling left unresolved other disputed areas around the temple that Thailand will continue to pursue, the Bangkok Post reported.

Officials from both countries made allusions to the mutual benefit of working together to develop the temple site, already a popular tourist destination. While the land and temple belong to Cambodia, the site is more easily approached from Thai territory and most foreign visitors travel to it from Thailand, Agence France Press reported.

Fears of nationalist violence following the decision were being fueled by a domestic political conflict in Thailand that has brought thousands of demonstrators into the streets in recent days. The Thai Senate is debating an amnesty bill that would allow self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- the current prime minister’s brother -- to return to Thailand and make a political comeback, the Reuters news agency reported.

Ultranationalist and royalist factions in Thailand accuse Thaksin of failing to defend Thai territorial interests due to his close relationship with Cambodia’s Hun Sen. The royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy said it didn’t recognize the U.N. court’s jurisdiction in resolving the temple land dispute.

The territorial dispute over the Preah Vihear originates from maps drawn in 1907 when Cambodia was under French colonial rule.


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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat