Previous ICJ ruling in 1962 established that the temple – declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008 – belongs to Cambodia, but Thailand has repeatedly contested the verdict. Under the nationalist administration of former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dispute escalated into open conflicts along the border.
The Cambodian government later filed the case to ICJ, arguing that the 4.6 kilometre stretch of land northwest of Preah Vihear Temple, called Phnom Trap, also belongs to Cambodia, a claim the Thai government vehemently rejected.
Yesterday the ICJ judges reaffirmed the 1962 verdict, awarding the ownership of the ancient temple to Cambodia. The judges also described a tip of promontory northeast of Preah Vihear as a part of the temple, hence awarding the small land to Cambodia, but they refused to rule which country has sovereignty over the rest of disputed territory around Phnom Trap.
Although the ruling was a legal victory to Cambodia, it was enthusiastically welcomed by the Thai authorities. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said in a live television address that her government has accepted the verdict. Minister of Foreign Affairs has likewise said he accepted the ruling.
Diplomats and experts noted that the small tip of promontory ruled as Cambodian territory amounts to no larger than 1 kilometre of land; the outcome is far better than the worst case scenario, in which the ICJ decided to hand the entire disputed territory of 4.6 square kilometre to Cambodia, that many has feared.
Moreover, apart from the ultra-nationalist wings of the anti-government movements, much of the Thai public has already conceded that Preah Vihear decidedly belongs to Cambodia.
Both Thailand and Cambodia benefit from the ICJ ruling, argued Mr. Charnvit Kasetsiri, the director of Southeast Asia Study program at Thammasat University.
"We didn′t lose the 4.6 square kilometre of the disputed territory," Mr. Charnvit said.
He added, "The court clearly said the ownership of the land is up to debate by both sides. Thailand and Cambodia have reached agreements over cross-border casinos in the long stretches of land along the border. Why can′t they reach agreement over a religious site, too?"
Mr. Charnvit also dismissed the fear that the anti-government protesters, who are currently encamped in Bangkok′s old quarter, would exploit the ruling to mobilise the mass against the government.
"The verdict today didn′t give any ammunition to the Democrat Party and its anti-government allies," said Mr. Charnvit, "If the verdict had been a terrible one, of course the Democrats and their allies would go on offensive against Ms. Yingluck. But the ruling didn′t turn to be as bad as I thought".
Indeed, experts had previously warned that the ICJ ruling could embolden the anti-government protesters, who would certainly have adopted the issue to condemn Ms. Yingluck′s government as traitors of the nation; many anti-government critics have accused Ms. Yingluck of "selling" Thailand to foreign powers.
Conservatives and ultra-nationalists among the anti-government movements have often sought to compare the issue of Preah Vihear Temple with how Siam has ′lost is territory′ (เสียดินแดน) to French and British imperialists in early twentieth century.
A number of media agencies known for their hostility toward the government, namely Manager ASTV, Thai Post, and Kom Chad Luek, plastered their front pages today with headlines proclaiming that Thailand has ′lost its territory′ (เสียดินแดน) to Cambodia, a stance shared by leaders of the anti-government protests.
In contrast, Thai Rath, the nation′s best selling newspapers, noted in its headlines that Thailand did not lose its disputed territory of 4.6 square kilometres.
Meanwhile, Villages along the Thai side of the border, which became flashpoints of clashes between Thai and Cambodian military in the past, had been on alert throughout the morning of the judgment day, as many locals feared the two nations could come into collision if the verdict decisively favoured one side over another.
However, after the live television broadcast of the ICJ verdict wrapped up by 17.30, many residents in the border district of Sao Thong Chai in Si Sa Ket province cheered on the streets of their villages, relieved that the ICJ did not award the 4.6 square kilometre of disputed territory to Cambodia.
"The impartiality of the ICJ means there would be no war between Thailand and Cambodia", said Mr. Veerayuth Duangkaew, local chief of Sao Thong Chai district, "Everyone at my village is very happy".
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