May 30, 2011
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Thailand and Cambodia traded barbs Monday at the United Nations' highest court, accusing each other of launching illegal cross-border attacks around a historic temple in a disputed border region.
The competing claims came as Cambodia appealed to the International Court of Justice to order Thai troops away from Preah Vihear temple — Thailand responded by claiming the court has no jurisdiction to intervene.
Opening the hearing with an emotional speech, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong claimed Thai forces had mounted "murderous armed incursions" into Cambodian territory.
Thailand's ambassador to the Netherlands, Virachai Plasai, hit back by alleging that unprovoked Cambodian attacks on Thai territory amounted to "a blatant and deliberate violation of" the rules of war.
"This portrayal of Thailand as a big bad wolf bullying the lamb of Cambodia is totally wrong," Plasai said.
Fighting between the two nations has cost some 20 lives, wounded dozens and sent tens of thousands fleeing since 2008, when the 11th-century temple was given U.N. World Heritage status, overriding Thailand's objections.
In a fresh attempt to settle the dispute that has simmered for decades, Cambodia is asking the world court for a new interpretation of its 1962 judgment that gave it control of the temple.
But Thailand's lawyer James Crawford said the 16-judge panel has no jurisdiction to intervene now because Thailand accepts the 1962 ruling that the temple is on Cambodian territory. He said the border dispute is not part of the ruling.
He was responding to Hor Namhong's assertion that Thailand is using an erroneous reading of the 1962 ruling "to provide legal cover for armed incursions into Cambodian territory."
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said the two countries are still in talks to settle the border dispute.
"We do not understand why we have to come here when there is already an existing mechanism" for negotiating a border, Kasit told reporters outside the courtroom.
The court could rule on Cambodia's request for a Thai troop withdrawal order within weeks, but will likely take years to settle the underlying dispute if it accepts it has jurisdiction.
Tensions along the border have been exacerbated in recent months, in part by pressure from influential Thai nationalist groups that have protested in Bangkok, urging the government to take back disputed border territory. Hardcore nationalists insist a 1962 World Court ruling awarding the Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia was unfair.
"Thailand does not merely challenge Cambodia's sovereignty in this region, but is imposing its own interpretation by occupying this zone by murderous armed incursions," Hor Namhong said.
The flare-up also comes as the Thai military raises its profile in domestic politics ahead of a general election scheduled for July 3.
According to its World Heritage listing, the temple dedicated to Shiva "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."
Talks mediated by Indonesia's president in early May between the two countries' prime ministers failed to hammer out a lasting cease-fire.
"The two armies confront one another on a daily basis and new Thai aggression could arise at any moment," Hor Namhong told the judges. "It is time for international law to speak loudly."