BANGKOK – Thai military officials meeting their Cambodian counterparts at the base of Preah Vihear temple on Tuesday said their troops were going nowhere until the two governments held more talks on how to proceed with Monday’s U.N. court ruling ordering Thailand to leave the temple area.
The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Thailand had to remove all soldiers, police and guards from the promontory on which the clifftop temple sits, part of the land over which the neighbors have fought several brief but deadly clashes in recent years.
Thai Major General Tharakorn Thammawinthorn met with Lieutenant General Srey Doek, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers stationed at the temple, for about one hour between the temple steps and the disputed borderline.
“The ICJ ordered us to move out. We will follow our top government’s order,” Maj. Gen. Tharakorn told reporters afterward. “We will do it step by step, but we need time.”
Neither commander said how many Thai soldiers were presently stationed on the promontory.
In issuing its ruling, the ICJ offered no map of the promontory but said it was bounded by the steep cliff that falls into Cambodia on the west and south, the borderline on a colonial-era French map on the north, and the foot of Phnom Trap hill on the west.
Lt. Gen. Doek said the two armies agreed to continue meeting along the disputed border every day to keep tensions down.
“We told our soldiers to cooperate with the Thai soldiers at the border to avoid conflict, and we agreed that the two sides will meet each other every day,” he said.
As for implementing the ICJ’s order, he said, “we believe the two governments will solve this case.”
Contacted afterward, Thai army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhadhpatipak said he did not know how many Thai soldiers, police or guards were stationed on the promontory and that it would take at least a few days to decide what to do with them.
“They are studying the ICJ rule at the moment,” he said. “It could be a couple more days before a decision; there are many clauses to be interpreted.”
Technically, there should not be any Thai or Cambodian troops on the promontory, which lies well within a demilitarized zone the ICJ drew around the disputed area in 2011 and ordered both armies to withdraw from immediately. It took Thailand and Cambodia a year to negotiate and stage a joint withdrawal, and even then it remained unclear whether all of them ever left.
The ICJ issued Monday’s ruling at the request of Cambodia, which asked the court to interpret a 1962 ruling that awarded Cambodia the temple and its “vicinity,” but left the meaning of vicinity in doubt. Monday’s ruling gave Cambodia the whole of the Preah Vihear promontory, but not nearby Phnom Trap hill or an official border with Thailand based on the French map, as Cambodia was hoping it would.
That leaves Thailand and Cambodia’s border negotiations more or less where they were when the last round of fighting in early 2011 put them on indefinite hold.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Monday’s ruling was “the start of [a] new chapter” for those negotiations.
The ICJ expressly rejected Cambodia’s request to set the official borderline with Thailand using the French map, also known as the Annex 1 map. But Mr. Siphan said the ICJ had helped move bilateral border talks forward, because the court also dismissed Thailand’s preference for the local watershed line.
“The ICJ used the Annex 1 map to decide where the temple is situated, and Thailand said there is a 4.6 [square km disputed] area, but the court said nothing about that…. They don’t accept the watershed map by Thailand,” he said. “So I don’t see any conflict anymore.”
That may be wishful thinking. The ICJ said only that the watershed line could not be used to decide the vicinity of Preah Vihear temple. It said nothing about whether it could, or could not, be used to draw the local border.
And according to Thai media, Thai officials still believe the ICJ ruling leaves them free to keep claiming most of the disputed 4.6 square km and to use the watershed line in future negotiations.
“We think the judgment is positive and it opens the way for global negotiations on the whole boundary based on the watershed line,” Alain Pellet, who headed Thailand’s legal team at The Hague, was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post Tuesday.
Even so, Mr. Siphan insisted that the same bilateral talks that have failed to settle the border row to date would now work.
“We have existing mechanisms, we have the JBC [Joint Border Committee], the GBC [General Boundary Commission], and we have the bilateral bodies,” he said. “That is the most important thing.”
Mr. Siphan said he did not know when those talks would resume and referred further questions to Var Kimhong, Cambodia’s co-chair of the JBC. Mr. Kimhong had yet to return from The Hague and could not be reached.