Dispute over Preah Vihear Temple is taken up, threatening to revive Thai nationalistic fervor


Special To The Japan Times

From April 15-19, the hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple took place in the Netherlands. Cambodia made its opening argument on April 15 followed by Thailand two days later. Each side then made additional arguments. The court retired after the April 19 session, and is expected to give its verdict by October.

Cambodia has petitioned the ICJ to interpret its 1962 ruling, and decide whether it includes territory surrounding the temple. The ICJ awarded the temple itself to Cambodia, but did not dictate ownership of the area around the temple itself which is claimed by both countries.

Although the ruling was reached in 1962, the conflict over Preah Vihear has continued to be politicized, specifically in the context of Thailand’s domestic politics. To undermine the Thaksin-backed regime of Samak Sundaravej in 2008, the royalist “yellow shirts” exploited the Preah Vihear issue to achieve their purpose.

Back then, Prime Minister Samak offered his support for Cambodia’s bid to have Preah Vihear listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. His enemies accused him of exchanging the overlapping area within the temple vicinity for Thaksin’s personal interests — an allegation that has been proven groundless.

When Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister in late 2008, relations between Thailand and Cambodia gravely deteriorated. This was because Abhisit once lent his support to the royalist yellow shirts in attacking Cambodia. The intense relations led to a series of armed clashes along the common border. These have become ones of the most severe armed clashes in the two countries’ recent memories. That was when Cambodia decided to send the verdict back to the ICJ for reinterpretation.

But in the past year, Thai relations with Cambodia have noticeably improved. Thailand’s election of July 2011 significantly changed the country’s political landscape. The Yingluck Shinawatra premiership was immediately celebrated in Phnom Penh. Her much-publicized visit to Phnom Penh on Sept. 15, 2011, symbolized a thaw in the Thai-Cambodian relationship. Thaksin Shinawatra followed up with his own visit to Cambodia in September 2011, helping to pave the way for a better relationship.

In the middle of 2012, Hun Sen and Yingluck decided to go ahead with Indonesia’s peacemaking initiative and agreed to withdraw their country’s troops from the disputed area.

Obviously a ceasefire was achieved, at least for now, because of the change in Thailand’s domestic politics, with Yingluck trying to negotiate with the Thai army for the reopening of dialogue between Thailand and Cambodia. It appears that leaders of both countries have been able to tamp down nationalistic emotions instead of fanning them as seen during 2008-2011.

It is therefore crucial to see whether the reinterpretation of the 1962 verdict of the ICJ will shift the positions of both countries again. If the ICJ rules in favor of Cambodia, as in 1962, this could resurrect nationalistic fervor in Thailand and may ignite armed clashes. The Thai military may benefit from the situation but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be put to the test for certain.

Already, some remnants of the yellow-shirt movement, under the name “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD), staged a rally against Cambodia near a border town in Si Sa Ket. But their presence faced protests organized by local residents in the area who have become fed up with the politicization of the case. They wanted the return of peace and stability on the border.

One resident of Si Sa Ket said, “It is very easy for people in Bangkok to create the situation in Thai-Cambodian relations, but we are the ones who have to bear the consequences.”

It remains to be seen what would be the response from the Yingluck government, the military, the royalist yellow shirts or even the public at large if the ICJ’s reinterpretation puts Thailand in a disadvantageous position.

It is likely that the Thai military would grasp this opportunity to increase its leverage against the government. After all, the military is not willing to withdraw itself from politics. The 2006 coup was staged partly because of the military’s wish to maintain its foothold in politics.

A new possible war with Cambodia could also benefit the military, as this would assign the latter a significant role, particularly in defending Thailand’s national security. Not only would this allow a firmer political role for the army, but it would legitimize its call for a sizable budget due to the imminent threat on the Thai-Cambodian border.

The yellow shirts may also want to blow the unfavorable outcome of the ICJ’s reinterpretation out of proportion to undermine the Yingluck government.

Since they cannot compete with the Thaksin faction through electoral politics, they have been endorsing extra-constitutional means in their attempt to remove the current government from power. And the ICJ’s new ruling could be used for that purpose.

It all comes down to the Yingluck government and how she handles the situation. Since she and Prime Minister Hun Sen have been friendly toward each other, her government would be in a better position to ensure the absence of hostility toward the other even with a new ruling that doesn’t benefit Thailand.

A greater obstacle for Yingluck will be how to manage her relations with the military and the nationalist yellow shirts. Playing into their political game could jeopardize her power. Ignoring them could also intensify a sense of nationalism stirred up by them, too.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

  • donkeyslobber

    Thank you, Professor. We don’t normally hear this level of knowledgeable input re: this discussion. Thailand is fundamentally a Western satellite in terms of military presence, while Hun Sen has firmly grasped the Chinese ‘direction’. This situation belies the shared ancestry of the border populace. The decision about who ‘owns’ the land and the temples is irrelevant unless the ancient temptation to elicit outside mercenaries can be forestalled. .