Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Tensions remain, but Thailand and Cambodia look for diplomatic solution to temple dispute

In recent weeks, tension between Thailand and Cambodia over the 11th century Preah Vihear Hindu temple – after which one of Cambodia's northern provinces is named - on their border has heated up to near breaking point, but military conflict seems to be a less likely option now as both countries have committed themselves to a diplomatic solution.

Tension has existed over the temple for many years, despite a 1962 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that the temple was in Cambodian territory. The ruling did not, however, include the adjacent land where access to the temple largely lies, and which Thailand insists is its own territory.

Thailand sought to have the countries jointly seek World Heritage status for the site, based on a 2000 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). However the then Thai Foreign Minister, Noppadon Pattama, was forced to resign in 2008 after it emerged that he had signed a joint communiqué with Cambodia in breach of the Thai constitution. This opened the way for Cambodia to make a separate application for World Heritage Site status which was granted in July 2008. Border skirmishes between the two countries broke out soon afterwards.

The issue re-emerged in late July 2010 when Cambodia moved to submit a new management plan for the temple and 4.6 sq km of adjacent land during UNESCO's World Heritage Committee meeting in Brazil. The Thai delegation, led by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti, attended the forum to lobby against the plan, and argued that the committee should not consider the plan until Thailand and Cambodia have agreed on a demarcation line. Thailand fears that acceptance of the Cambodian management plan would result in a buffer zone being created around the temple, and on 29th July, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said that his country would withdraw from UNESCO if the committee accepted the Cambodian plan.

UNESCO agreed to delay making a decision on the plan until the next World Heritage Committee meeting, due to be held in Bahrain in 2011. This failed to resolve the tension however, with both countries accusing the other of military threats. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote to the UN accusing Thailand of threatening to use military force, while Thai troops on the border have reported Cambodian troop movements. Cambodian officials have requested mediation from both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Vietnam, which is the current chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but Thailand has said it is a bilateral issue that does not require third-party intervention. Vejjajiva has, however, set up talks with Ban in an effort to ensure that the Secretary-General understands the Thai position before his scheduled visit to Cambodia on 27th October.

Domestic political issue in Thailand have also contributed to the dispute, because the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which is in alliance with Vejjajiva's Democrat Party, led the 28th July protest at UNESCO's Bangkok office. This was in defiance of the emergency decree prohibiting political gatherings that were put in place after political violence in the spring. The group wants Thailand to cancel the 2000 MoU which it claims put Thailand at a disadvantage.

While both sides now agree that diplomatic solutions can be found, Cambodia has postponed a General Border Committee meeting that was due to be held on 27th August, citing tension as the cause.

Thailand, however, has continued to push for a new meeting of the Joint Boundary Commission, to prevent international interference in the dispute. Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Hor Namhong met with ASEAN General Secretary Surin Pitsuwan in Phnom Penh on 16th August, but Thailand declined to send a representative, arguing that the dispute should not be raised to a regional level.

The Preah Vihear temple is only one issue in the long-running border dispute between the neighbouring countries. The maritime dispute – resulting in the 27,000 sq kms Overlapping Claims Area (OCA) – has been in force majeure for decades and has prevented any exploration in the seemingly oil-rich area.

Menas Borders has undertaken detailed analysis of the Thailand-Cambodia maritime dispute. For further details please contact info@menasborders.com

Sources: MCOT, MCOT 2, Bangkok Post, Bangkok Post 2, Voice of America

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