Thai-Cambodia relations helped by Vihear verdict

BANGKOK- The decades-old border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the ancient Preah Vihear temple appears to be inching towards a solution: the International Court of Justice has ruled that at least a small chunk of the land in question belongs to Cambodia.

Cambodia claims 4.6 sq km around the Khmer temple under a 1962 world court ruling giving it an area in the temple's "vicinity".

On Monday, the court judged that a far smaller area - estimated to be less than 1 sq km - was within the temple's "vicinity" and thus belonged to Cambodia. The exact boundary lines need to be worked out between the two countries.

On the surface, it appears that the judgment raised more questions than it answered, as it leaves the status of the remaining disputed land - now a demilitarised zone - up in the air.

But analysts say such unclear boundaries bring both countries to the table and thus essentially give a lift to bilateral relations.

Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri says: "It's a kind of win-win situation. Thailand and Cambodia could sit down and work it out."

The wrangle over the cliffside Khmer temple, which dates back to the ninth century, has been a constant thorn in Thai-Cambodian relations even though government-to-government relations have been good since Thailand's Puea Thai party came to power in 2011.

Suspicions between Thais and Cambodians still exist given the ancient rivalry between their empires.

The temple is regarded as "a symbol of Cambodia's age old cultural heritage and high civilisation", says Mr Kimly Ngoun, an international studies lecturer in the Royal University of Phnom Penh. "It is also a symbol of Cambodia's victory over Thailand for the first time after the Angkor period."

On the Thai end, the ownership of the temple has been a rallying point for nationalists as well as activists campaigning against Thaksin Shinawatra, the country's self-exiled former prime minister whose sister is now Premier.

Thaksin, who is on good terms with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been accused of selling out his country.

Bilateral relations hit bottom in 2011 when Thailand was led by a Democrat government. Armed clashes which broke out at the border killed at least eight people and forced tens of thousands to flee.

On Monday though, leaders of both countries were eager to pledge their commitment to peace and cooperation after the verdict was announced.

Mr Hun Sen said he would "not do anything that would lead to tension" according to a BBC report. Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, likewise, said Thai troops would keep the peace along the border.

Still, both sides have their constituencies to consider.

The permanent secretary of Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow said on Tuesday: "Neither side can claim complete victory. There are still negotiations ahead. We will negotiate in good faith. But we are determined to protect our sovereignty."

These firm words are perhaps directed at nationalists as well as protesters who have filled Bangkok's streets in the past week to oppose a Bill that would grant amnesty to Thaksin, who faces a jail sentence for corruption.

With the Senate voting down the Bill on Monday night, protesters have turned their attention to ousting the government.

The world court verdict was supposed to give them more ammunition for their anti-government campaign. But with such an evenly balanced outcome, their movement is unlikely to gain momentum, says Dr Charnvit.

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