Thailand braces for trouble as UN court backs Cambodia in border row

Thailand braces for trouble as UN court backs Cambodia in border row
Protesters burn a Cambodia flag during a rally outside the Government House in Bangkok November 11, 2013.

THE HAGUE/BANGKOK - A UN court ruled in favour of Cambodia on Monday in a long-running dispute with Thailand over jurisdiction of land around an ancient temple, a decision that threatens to add fuel to a deepening political standoff in Bangkok.

The Preah Vihear Temple sits atop an escarpment that forms the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Under a map drawn up when Cambodia was a French colony, the temple is Cambodian but its ownership has dogged ties since Cambodia's independence in the 1950s.

The two sides have exchanged fire around the temple on several occasions in recent years and the dispute has become divisive within Thailand where two broad political factions have been batting for power for years.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), in clarifying a 1962 decision to award jurisdiction of the temple to Cambodia, ruled that part of the land around it was Cambodia's and Thailand must withdraw its forces from the area.

The verdict could not come at a worse time for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is facing street protests against a government-backed amnesty bill being debated by the upper house Senate.

Opponents say the amnesty is designed to expunge her self-exiled brother and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's 2008 jail term for abuse of power while he was office, to allow him to return a free man and make a political comeback.

Thaksin promoted close ties with Cambodia when he was prime minister and his enemies have accused him of not defending Thai interests in connection with the border dispute.

Some of the thousands of demonstrators who have been out on the streets of the Thai capital over recent days want to topple Yingluck's government and are accusing it of colluding with Thaksin and Cambodia to "sell" Thai land.

The land they are referring to is 4.6-square km (1.8 sq mile) of scrub surrounding Preah Vihear.

The court said the northern edge of the promontory, upon which Preah Vihear sits, was Cambodian, as agreed in the 1906 treaty between Thailand, then called Siam, and French Cambodia.

"The 1962 judgment required Thailand to withdraw from the whole territory of the promontory ... to Thai territory," judges said in clarifying the original ruling.

The territory they were referring to, however, was just one part of the of the 4.6 sq km that is in dispute, leaving scope for more disagreement.

The court was only able to clarify jurisdiction of promontory that was covered in its 1962 ruling and said it had no authority to rule on rival claims to other land.

Some of the Thai anti-government demonstrators had anticipated the court would rule in Cambodia's favour. At least 1,000 ultra-nationalists among the protesters marched to the Defence Ministry earlier to deliver a letter demanding the military protects what they said was Thai sovereign territory.

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