UN orders troops away from temple

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:33

The UN's highest court has ordered troops from Thailand and Cambodia to immediately withdraw military forces from disputed areas around a World Heritage temple straddling their border.

The court drew a "provisional demilitarised zone" around the 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear temple that would push Thai troops back from positions they have long occupied and would see Cambodian armed forces leave the temple's immediate vicinity.

At least 20 people have died since 2008 in clashes between the two countries that were ongoing until last April, when military commanders verbally agreed to an cease-fire.

By a vote of 11-5, the judges of the International Court of Justice went beyond Cambodia's request to order Thai troops out of the area, and imposed restrictions on both armies and police forces.

It said it decided to intercede to avoid the risk of more clashes and further damage to the ancient Hindu shrine.

It also called on the two nations to allow officers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into the area to observe the cease-fire, which was called for by the UN Security Council last February.

The court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear is in Cambodian territory, a judgment Thailand does not dispute.

But the earlier ruling failed to draw definitive boundaries. Cambodia went to the UN tribunal for clarifications on "the meaning and scope" of the ruling. Thailand argued that the court has no need to take further action.

Both sides said they were satisfied with the decision.

Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya noted the court had declined Cambodia's demand for a unilateral Thai pullback. A withdrawal of armed Cambodians from the temple complex "has been our consistent position," he said outside court.

He said the decision is binding on both countries, and Thailand would abide by the ruling to withdraw forces and facilitate the observers' deployment. Thailand also agreed to the court's instruction to allow unhindered supplies to Cambodian civilian personnel at the temple complex, he said.

Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong said the establishment of a demilitarised zone would mean "a permanent cease-fire" which "is tantamount to a cessation of aggression" by Thailand. He also said he was satisfied with the dispatch of truce observers, which he said Cambodia had been seeking since last February.

In his remarks to reporters, he made no reference to the demand for Cambodian troops to abandon the temple grounds.

The court said its ruling would not prejudice any final ruling on the where the border in the area between Thailand and Cambodia should fall. It could take the court many months or even years to reach that decision.

Fighting since 2008, when the shrine to the Hindu god Shiva was declared a World Heritage site, has driven tens of thousands of people from the area and wounded many, on top of those who have been killed.

A map of the demilitarised zone proscribed an area of several square kilometres, with Thai troops moving off a ridge line north of the temple and Cambodian forces moving across a deep valley south of the shrine. Supplies to the temple would have to come via a road that Thailand claims runs through its territory.

Preceding Thai elections earlier this month, border tensions in the area escalated, in part due to pressure from influential Thai nationalist groups that have protested in Bangkok, urging the government to take back disputed territory. Hardline nationalists insist the 1962 World Court ruling awarding the temple to Cambodia was unfair.

According to its World Heritage listing, the temple "is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation".

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