Cambodian–Thai border dispute

Cambodian–Thai border dispute

The Preah Vihear Temple
Date22 June 2008 – 15 December 2011
(3 years, 5 months, 3 weeks and 2 days)
LocationCambodian–Thai border
Status ICJ decision awards promontory of Preah Vihear to Cambodia[1]
 Cambodia  Thailand
Casualties and losses
20 soldiers killed[2]
3 civilians killed[3]
16 soldiers killed[4]
2 civilians killed[5][6]

The Cambodian–Thai border dispute began in June 2008 as the latest round of a century-long dispute between Cambodia and Thailand involving the area surrounding the 11th century Preah Vihear Temple, in the Dângrêk Mountains between the Choam Khsant district in the Preah Vihear Province of northern Cambodia and the Kantharalak district (amphoe) in Sisaket Province of northeastern Thailand.

According to the Cambodian ambassador to the United Nations, the most recent dispute began on 15 July 2008 when about 50 Thai soldiers moved into the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda vicinity which he claims is located in Cambodia's territory about 300 metres (980 ft) from the Temple of Preah Vihear.[7] Thailand claims the demarcation has not yet been completed for the external parts of the area adjacent to the temple, which was adjudged to be Cambodian by a nine to three decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962.[8] By August 2008, the dispute had expanded to the 13th century Ta Moan temple complex 153 kilometres (95 mi) west of Preah Vihear (14°20′57″N 103°15′59″E / 14.34917°N 103.26639°E / 14.34917; 103.26639), where Cambodia has accused Thai troops of occupying a temple complex it claims is on Cambodian land. The Thai foreign ministry denied that any troops had moved into that area until several were killed in an encounter in April 2011.[9][10] An agreement was reached in December 2011 to withdraw troops from the disputed area.[11]

On 11 November 2013, the ICJ declared in a unanimous decision that the 1962 ICJ judgment had awarded all of the promontory of Preah Vihear to Cambodia and that Thailand had an obligation to withdraw any Thai military, police, or guard forces stationed in that area.[1] However, it rejected Cambodia's argument that the judgment had also awarded the hill of Phnom Trap (three kilometers northwest of the temple) to Cambodia, finding that it had made no ruling on sovereignty over the hill.


The Preah Vihear temple area has been the subject of often rancorous debate within Cambodia and Thailand and between the two countries since the late 19th century.

The temple complex was built during the 9th and 10th centuries CE under the auspices of the Khmer Empire. As the empire reached its zenith and began a slow decline, the Ayutthaya Kingdom began to grow into the modern state of Thailand. Siam and Vietnam expanded into Cambodian territory in turn during the Ayutthaya, Thonburi, and Rattanakosin eras.

The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1867 forced Siam to renounce suzerainty over Cambodia, with the exception of Battambang, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, and Oddar Meancheay Provinces,[12] which had been officially incorporated into the Kingdom of Siam. During the 1904 state visit of King Rama V to France, Siam agreed to cede the four provinces to France in exchange for regaining Thai sovereignty over Trat Province and Amphoe Dan Sai of Loei Province, which had been occupied by France.[12]

In 1907 the Thai-Cambodian border was mapped by the French on behalf of a bilateral border commission. According to the 1904 agreement, the border would follow the natural watershed between the countries. However, the resulting map deviated by showing Preah Vihear Temple as being in Cambodia, even though it is on the Thai side of the watershed. Thailand accepted the map for official use. The Thais discovered the error when they made their own survey in the 1930s, but the ICJ ruled that they had waited too long to protest and lost the temple by "acquiesance".[13]

Immediately prior to World War II, the Thai government attempted to negotiate an adjustment of the border with French Indochina. However, this came to an end with the French surrender in 1940 to Nazi Germany. The government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram then pressed the colonial government of French Indochina for the return of territory Thailand had lost in the 1904 and 1907 exchanges: Battambang Province of Thailand (modern day Battambang Province and Pailin municipality, Cambodia), Phibunsongkhram Province (modern day Siem Reap Province, Oddar Meancheay Province, and Banteay Meanchey Province Cambodia), Nakhon Champa Sak Province (modern day Champassack Province, Laos, Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia), and Saiyaburi Province of Laos (modern day Xaignabouli Province, Laos); (See map below) [12] The French colonial government refused to comply and fighting broke out along the border. In December 1940, Phibunsongkhram ordered an outright invasion of French Indochina, starting the French-Thai War. The Thai army and air force was better equipped and had the advantage of numbers against the Colonial French forces; they pushed back the French Foreign Legion and French colonial troops with little difficulty. However, the more modern French Navy caught the Thai fleet by surprise and won a decisive victory in the Battle of Koh Chang. Imperial Japan intervened to mediate the conflict, concerned that the conflict would affect their own plans for Southeast Asia.[14] A general armistice was declared on 28 January 1941. On 9 May a peace treaty was signed in Tokyo, the French being coerced by the Japanese into relinquishing their claim on the territories demanded by Thailand.

Map of Cambodia and Thailand, showing the location of the temple

On 7 December 1941, a few hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan demanded the right to move troops across Thailand to the Malayan frontier. Before the Thais could respond, the Japanese Invasion of Thailand began across the Cambodian border and at seven points along the sea coast. The Thai forces resisted, but were soon beaten by the Japanese. After only six or seven hours, Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram arrived in Bangkok and ordered an immediate ceasefire. Japan was reluctantly granted free passage, and after Japan's easy conquest of Singapore, Phibunsongkhram signed a military alliance with Japan on 21 December 1941. It contained a secret protocol in which Tokyo agreed to help Thailand regain the territories it had lost to the British and French colonial powers. In exchange, Thailand promised to assist Japan in its war against the Allies.

After the end of the war, Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong agreed to return the "liberated" territories to France, in return for he and Thailand not being regarded as an aggressor nor a member of the Axis Powers. He also requested admission to the newly created United Nations. Initially, both the UK and the Soviet Union regarded Thailand as an aggressor, despite its active anti-Japanese underground movement. The United States intervened in gratitude to the Free Thai Movement and prevailed on its wartime allies to agree.

With Cambodian Independence and the French withdrawal in 1953, the Thai military occupied Preah Vihear Temple in 1954 in keeping with the border line of the natural watershed. The temple had been built facing north to serve the plains above it, not those of the Cambodian plain far below. However, based on the 1907 French map, Cambodia protested, insisting that it was inside their territory. Both countries finally agreed to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice and abide by its decision.

In 1962 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded ownership of Preah Vihear Temple to Cambodia by a nine to three vote, stating the 1907 map clearly showed Preah Vihear as being in Cambodia.[15] Nevertheless, the court had only ruled that the temple belong to Cambodia, and did not comment on the adjacent land to the north. Thailand reluctantly handed over the temple but continues to claim the surrounding area, insisting the border has never officially been demarcated here.[16]

The ownership dispute revived in recent years when Cambodia submitted an application to UNESCO requesting that Preah Vihear be designated as a World Heritage site. Thailand contended the application requested the designation include the land surrounding the temple, which Thailand still considers its territory. In the interest of cross-border relations Cambodia withdrew the application, and after winning support from Thailand, submitted a modified map requesting the designation only for the temple itself.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a right wing Thai protest group, turned the temple into a cause célèbre wedge issue in its battles against the People Power Party government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej in their attempts to unseat the former and current Cabinet of Thailand.[17][18] In 2006 PAD-led street protests led first to the Thai general election of April 2006, largely boycotted by the opposition and won by then-incumbent Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party. This was followed by the military coup of June 2006, which ousted Thaksin, the caretaker prime minister. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was viewed as a proxy for the self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives abroad to avoid conviction for corruption.

Across the border, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) government of Prime Minister Hun Sen used the possibly coincidental timing of UNESCO's annual meeting and the listing of the temple as a World Heritage site in campaigning for the 27 July 2008 parliamentary election.[18]


Lead-up to 2008 fighting


October 2008

November 2008

April 2009

January 2010

April 2010

February 2011

April–May 2011

July 2011

Both sides said they were satisfied with the decision. Thai Foreign Minister Kasit, speaking outside the court, said that a withdrawal of armed Cambodians from the temple complex "has been our consistent position." Further noting that the decision is binding on both countries, he added that Thailand would withdraw its forces and facilitate the observers' deployment, and further agreed to allow unhindered supplies to Cambodian civilian personnel at the temple complex.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said a demilitarised zone would mean "a permanent cease-fire...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, but 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 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.[135]
Abhisit, caretaker prime minister since the just-concluded Thai general election, said that Thai soldiers would not pull out of the disputed area until the military of both countries agreed on the mutual withdrawal. "We need to talk to the Cambodians as the Cambodians also have to pull out their troops," Abhisit said at a news conference in Bangkok. "So there has to be some kind of mechanism to verify, to do it in an orderly manner. And therefore it depends on the two sides to come together and talk," he said, suggesting that an existing joint border committee would be the appropriate place to plan a coordinated pullback.[136]

September 2011 Football diplomacy

The Thai general election resulted in a decisive victory for the Pheu Thai Party, with their leader, Yingluck Shinawatra, replacing Abhist as Prime Minister on 5 August 2011. Many United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, also called "Red Shirts") members were elected to the House of Representatives. Core UDD leaders arranged with Cambodian PM Hun Sen for a friendly football match to be played in Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium on 24 September.[139] MP–and–UDD leaders Jatuporn Prompan and Natthawut Saikua were prohibited from leaving the country due to pending charges arising from the 2010 Thai political protests, so an attorney petitioned the Criminal Court for permission for them to travel to Cambodia for the game.[140] Former Thai premier Somchai Wongsawat led the Thai side. Cambodian premier Hun Sen led his side to a 10–7 victory, following which he announced that "the nightmare era" between Thailand and Cambodia was over. Former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya rejoined that Hun Sen should not think that he could benefit from close ties with ousted former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the ruling Pheu Thai Party. "Don't think that you will get at our natural resources and territory by be-friending or playing football with the Pheu Thai MPs," he said.[141]

December 2011

On 15 December, armies of both sides exchanged gunfire along the border in Koh Kong Province. The armed clash erupted at 13:45 in Zone 329 in Ta Min mountain after a Thai helicopter tried to land in Cambodian territory. No injuries or deaths were reported. The source said the Cambodian soldiers opened fire to prevent the Thai helicopter entering Cambodia and that the Thai soldiers responded with heavy gunfire. It was the first armed clash since Thailand's new government was formed in August.[142]

Proceedings at the International Court of Justice

Provisional demilitarized zone pursuant to the Order of 18 July 2011

On 28 April 2011 Cambodia filed a request for interpretation of the 1962 judgment, as well as a request for the indication of provisional measures, in the Registry of the International Court of Justice.[143] On 18 July 2011 the court rejected Thailand's attempt to have the case dismissed and indicated provisional measures requiring both states to withdraw their soldiers from a "provisional demilitarized zone" containing the area in dispute and some of its environs, continue their co-operation with ASEAN and observers appointed by it, and refrain from doing anything that might "aggravate or extend the dispute".[144] It also ordered Thailand not to obstruct Cambodia's access to the Temple of Preah Vihear.[145]

On 11 November 2013 the International Court of Justice gave judgment, ruling that the 1962 judgment awarded all of the promontory to Cambodia and ordering the withdrawal of Thai soldiers.[146] This followed a tense buildup to the decision in which dozens of Thai schools had closed ahead of the ruling.[147]

The court first concluded that it had jurisdiction and the request for interpretation was admissible, finding that a "dispute exists between the Parties as to the meaning and scope of the 1962 judgment pursuant to Article 60 of the Statute [of the ICJ]."[148] The court said that the 1962 judgment had three important features:[149] it involved an issue of "territorial sovereignty...and that it was not engaged in delimiting the frontier";[149] the "Annex I map played a central role in the reasoning of the Court...";[150] and that it made clear that it was only dealing with the small area in the "region of the Temple of Preah Vihear".[151] The court unanimously declared:[152]

The Court therefore concludes that the first operative paragraph of the 1962 Judgment determined that Cambodia had sovereignty over the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear, as defined in paragraph 98 of the present Judgment, and that, in consequence, the second operative paragraph required Thailand to withdraw from that territory the Thai military or police forces, or other guards or keepers, that were stationed there.

However, the court rejected Cambodia's argument that Phnom Trap had also been awarded to it by the 1962 judgment, concluding that the reference to the "vicinity" of the Temple of Preah Vihear in the operative part of the 1962 judgment was not intended to extend to it. Phnom Trap, known by Thais as Phu Ma-khuea (ภูมะเขือ, "Solanum Hill"), is the hill three kilometers northwest of the temple and comprises over 4 km2 of the "4.6 square km" that both states agreed was in dispute.[153]

Prior to the verdict, hundreds of Thai villagers left the area in expectation of the ruling to be unfavorable to them. There were also fears of renewed clashes amid rising nationalist rhetoric.[154]

Civilian effects

After the initial attack on 4 February 2011, the Cambodian army fired BM-21 Grad rockets into the town of Sao Thong Chai about 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) from the border. As a direct result, primary schools, a local hospital, and four or five houses were destroyed.[155] Only minutes before the bombardment, the local authority had issued a warning to the locals to evacuate and close the school. Despite this, one civilian was killed and at least 34 were injured in the rocket attack.[156] There are reports that 22,000 Thai citizens had to evacuate and abandon their homes. The Cambodian government blamed the Thai army for firing onto the World Heritage temple, causing severe damage, whereas the Cambodian army settled the site as an army base. There is evidence, such as video and photo footage from Reuters,[157] showing that Cambodian forces used the temple as a military base and fired machine guns and artillery. Thai soldiers responded by firing rifles at the Cambodian soldiers hiding in the temple.[158] However, there are only a few bullet impacts visible on the temple.[159] The Associated Press reported that Cambodian troops were stationed in the temple.[160]

Thai army was accused of using cluster munitions against Cambodia during the border fighting in February. Thailand at first denied the allegation, but later admitted it had fired the weapons. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, thousands of Cambodian villagers are now at risk of death or serious injury because of unexploded ordnance near their homes.[161]



Many Asian nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, China, and Vietnam, as well as Canada, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have called on both sides to exercise restraint.[162][163][164][165][166][167] Thailand and Cambodia agreed to allow Indonesian monitors to go to the border between the two countries to help prevent further military clashes; Indonesia was appointed as observer in this dispute.[133][134]


Improvised village bunker

Despite the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which commits parties to resolve intrastate conflict without violence, and the 2000 Memorandum of Understanding between Cambodia and Thailand, which established a Joint Border Commission to peacefully resolve overlapping claims, important constituent groups in Thailand, including the "Yellow Shirts," maintain that the status of Preah Vihear remains unresolved.[168]

Villagers from Ban Phum Srol denounced plans by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) ("Yellow Shirts") to bring relief supplies. "You have created the war. You troubled us. We don't welcome you," said Wichit Duangkaew, 46.[169]

Police arrested a Thai, a Cambodian, and a Vietnamese in Sisaket's Kantharalak district, near the Thai-Cambodian border. The suspects carried maps with military bases marked on them, but they denied they were spying.[170]

According to Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow on Thai history and regional affairs at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, "They're people who say that Hun Sen's playing up the situation on the Thai border is a way to distract the Cambodian people from his much softer stance vis à vis Vietnam relating to poorly demarcated borders."[171]

See also

911 Para-Commando Special Forces
Vietnamese border raids in Thailand
Border Patrol Police
Thahan Phran
Thai–Laotian Border War

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