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Will the history of thai-khmer enmity repeat itself?

FOREIGN MINISTER Surapong Towichukchaikul sought to convey two succinct messages in his latest comments on Thailand's chances of seeing a favourable outcome when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rules later this year on the disputed areas around the Temple of Khao Phra Wihan/Preah Vihear. The first message was quite simple: Whatever the outcome later this year, Thailand will have done its best. But the second message was a troublesome one. It clearly implied that any problems arising from the case were not the fault of his government, but of the previous government's own making. Of course, the emphasis is on the latter possibility, with a presumption that the court's decision will favour Cambodia.

Sadly, Surapong did not have a clue about - or pretended not to know - what the future implications of his simplistic views would be. Indeed, he has concluded that Thailand is in a "no-win" situation.

The airing of his views coincides with the ongoing media campaign to raise the public's awareness over the current Thai-Cambodian stand-off in The Hague. The campaign will intensify as the ICJ ruling nears. The Thai side is due to give further oral explanations from April 15-19, with nearly 500 pages of documents. The ruling is expected in the last quarter of this year. The government also feared that the outcome would be politicised.

The public relations campaign is a good initiative that should have been undertaken long ago for all pivotal issues related to the country's foreign policy, such as the US request to make use of U-Tapao Air Base, joining the negotiations to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, the fate of the Dawei Deep Sea Port development project in Myanmar, etc. Quite often Thais have been kept in the dark regarding the government's decisions on certain issues. That helps to explain why the current Constitution contains Article 190, which requires the government to put up for discussion foreign policy decisions that affect national interests and sovereignty.

INCONSISTENCY, DISCONTINUITY

The saddest part about the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Hindu Temple has been the inconsistency and discontinuity of concerned institutions and authorities in Thailand in dealing with demarcation issues since the ICJ's original ruling on June 15, 1962. For the past three decades, the Cambodian side has had the same team handling the dispute under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, while the Thai team had changed incessantly depending on the incoming governments — 20 in all. As such, institutional and personal knowledge of this high profile case has inevitably been disconnected and sometimes misinterpreted to fit the political atmosphere of the time.

Back in 1962, it was decided that the temple was under Cambodia's sovereignty, requiring Thailand to pull out its soldiers, police and security guards from the disputed area. But the verdict did not touch on the nature of the boundary, which remained unclear. Indeed, the temple dispute was politicised on the day Thailand responded to the court's decision by stating it reserved the right to reclaim sovereignty over the temple in the future.

Since Thailand was under the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, this was no surprise. It was a conscious decision to show that nationalistic Thailand did not accept the ruling fully. In his letter to then acting UN Secretary General U Thant, the foreign minister at the time, Thanat Khoman, wrote that Thailand disagreed with the decision but nonetheless would comply as a good member of the United Nations. It also stated Thailand reserved the right to reclaim the temple in the future. Furthermore, to acknowledge that Thailand had followed the court's ruling, the Foreign Ministry's Foreign Affairs Bulletin, June-July 1962, published the decision in full to inform the global community.

Since the ICJ only decided that the temple was situated inside Cambodian territory, without deciding on the demarcation line, Thailand treated the map it drew on July 10, 1962 following its troop pullout as the legitimate map. Cambodia has never accepted this map, stating that the court's decision clearly recognised a map prepared by the Thailand-France Demarcation Committee that it submitted to the court among its documents. Due to different interpretations, the dispute over 4.6 square kilometres of land surrounding the temple has never been resolved. Thailand and Cambodia, through the Joint Boundary Committee (JBC) set up on June 14, 2000, have to work out this problem. Indeed, the JBC should be the principle mechanism, not the ICJ, to settle the differences. That was not to be.

PREVENTABLE PROBLEM

The problem arose after Thailand and Cambodia agreed in principle to draw up a plan to co-develop the area surrounding the temple in March 2004 under the first Thaksin administration. For the first time, Thailand informed Cambodia it would support the latter's plan to register the temple as a World Heritage site with Unesco, with one condition - that it must proceed in such way that would not allow the problematic boundary to hamper the planned joint development areas. That much was clear. If the two countries proceeded along this agreement with more mutual trust and better understanding of their common stakes, the current trouble could have been prevented altogether. Both sides would now be enjoying the fruits of their joint collaboration.

Over the following seven years (2004-2011), Thai-Cambodia relations were on a roller-coaster ride. Thailand's domestic messiness and overall lack of stability did not help. The coup of 2006 deposing Thaksin plunged Thai-Cambodian ties into an abyss and added further twists and turns to the proposed jointed cooperation on the temple's surrounding areas.

The dubious nature of Thaksin and Hun Sen's personal ties complicated negotiations on issues involving perceived national interests. When the Democrat Party took power at the end of 2009, it tried to undo what were perceived as plans to advance Thaksin's personal vested interests. The whole episode morphed into a series of personal vendettas — such is the backdrop to the court's pending ruling.

Despite the constant rhetoric of peace from Thai and Cambodian leaders, border skirmishes erupted several times. The worst occurred in 2008 and 2011, with serious casualties inflicted on innocent people along the border — the first really serious intra-Asean conflict. In 2011, the conflict was brought to the UN Security Council, which sent it back to the conflicting parties to find ways to resolve the conflict peacefully through the facilitating role of Asean, with Indonesia as its chair.

Contrary to Surapong's fear, Thailand should be open-minded about the upcoming court decision. After all, it will decide whether the 1962 decision was clear enough or needs further clarification. Whatever clarification the court is planning to make, it will not go beyond the verdict in 1962. As cited in Thanat's letter, Thailand, as a good UN member, will comply with the court's ruling. Of course, Thailand is certain of its legal argument and approach. The ruling will help the two countries handle their ownership issue in the future. On such an important national issue, the political parties should be non-partisan. Given the crude nature of Thai politics, personal grudges - exemplified by Surapong's comments - and revenge plays are brought out into the open for the public to see on issues of national concern.


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