Thailand and Cambodia faced off at the UN’s highest court yesterday in a dispute over land surrounding a flashpoint temple that has seen deadly clashes along their joint border.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague is holding a week of hearings after Phnom Penh asked two years ago for an interpretation of a 1962 ruling on the Preah Vihear temple.
Thailand does not dispute Cambodia’s ownership of the temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, but both sides claim an adjacent 4.6km2 patch of land.
A verdict is not expected before September.
In February 2011, 10 people were killed in fighting at the Preah Vihear temple site and fresh clashes broke out farther west in April 2011, leaving 18 dead.
The ICJ subsequently ruled that both countries should withdraw forces around the 900-year-old Khmer temple, which is perched on a clifftop in Cambodia, but with access much easier from the Thai side.
Access from the Cambodian side was so difficult in the 1970s that it was reportedly the last place to fall to the Khmer Rouge regime, and also last holdout of Khmer Rouge fighters in the 1990s.
Cambodia and Thailand finally pulled hundreds of soldiers out of the disputed border area in July last year, replacing them with police and security guards. The situation remains calm.
“When all the statements are released, people can consider the issues. We will fight the case transparently and with our best effort,” Thai Ambassador to The Hague Virachai Plasai said in a recent press briefing.
He said arguments over the land bordering the temple stemmed from Cambodian efforts to define rights over it as part of its application for World Heritage status for the temple.
However, the roots of the dispute are much earlier, dating to maps drawn during French colonial disengagement in the early 20th century.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong is leading a delegation to the hearing, with three foreign lawyers advising the country.
Tensions between the two nations have calmed since mid-2011, when Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office. She is the sister of exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is a friend of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.