It has been a year now since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered that a demilitarised zone be set up around Preah Vihear temple. The good news is that the fighting which preceded the court order has entirely ceased. The bad news is that armed forces of the two countries remain in the area, stationed close to each other. The worst news is that both armies have essentially ignored the order of the ICJ and have not seriously pursued talks on how to disengage and make the Preah Vihear area safe.
The ruling by the ICJ, sometimes called the World Court, was a "preliminary" order after a series of deadly armed clashes that threatened actual war between the two countries. The court drew a quadrilateral on a map of the temple area and ordered the two countries to make everything inside a DMZ. The logic of the DMZ is unclear. It is much larger than the disputed region of 4.6 square kilometres around the temple, with four uneven sides between two and seven kilometres. Almost all of the DMZ is in Thailand, although it includes the high cliffs which form the natural border between the two nations.
Authorities in both Thailand and Cambodia have grumbled about the ICJ order, but have officially accepted the court's ruling. On the ground, however, neither country has respected, accepted or invoked the court's decision. Cambodia recently claimed it would "soon" withdraw soldiers who have been stationed inside the actual temple buildings. Thailand has replaced soldiers with members of the Border Patrol Police.
The DMZ of 17.3 square kilometres far exceeds the contested area around the temple claimed by both countries. The judges said they ordered such a large demilitarised zone in order to separate the armies and to prevent further clashes. Neither Thai nor Cambodian authorities have acted on the court's order to separate the armed forces.
This month is also the fourth anniversary of the naming of Preah Vihear as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The ICJ in 1962 gave Cambodia sovereignty over a temple which can only realistically be reached through Thai territory. By making Preah Vihear a heritage site, Unesco created a real headache for Cambodia, for Thailand and for world citizens who wish to visit the ninth-century temple.
The year-old ICJ ruling to respect a DMZ was sensible and safe. Thailand and Cambodia can protect their national borders while respecting a military-free zone around the disputed land at Preah Vihear. As was shown last week when Cambodian forces bragged about shooting at a Thai civilian airliner, the border remains a more dangerous place than necessary.
The best solution to this lingering problem is for Thailand and Cambodia to initiate talks on when and how to withdraw their armed forces from the court-ordered DMZ. And the decision to do that today is a positive sign. Distrust can also be overcome by stationing observers, either national or the Indonesian military who volunteered for the task. ICJ judges issued a reasonable and logical step to solving the border problems, and both countries should move more quickly to respect the court's ruling.
18 July 2012