By Noelan Arbis
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on November 11 unanimously confirmed Cambodia’s sovereignty over a long-disputed promontory surrounding Preah Vihear temple, located on the Thai-Cambodia border. Thailand and Cambodia have each controlled the area of Preah Vihear at different points since its construction in the 11th century. When the ICJ first awarded Cambodia ownership of the temple in 1962, it failed to establish ownership of the land surrounding it, which opened the door to subsequent disputes and military clashes between the two countries.
The ICJ’s decision comes at a crucial time for Thailand, as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has been facing growing opposition against a controversial Pheu Thai-backed amnesty bill that would acquit charges to all those involved in political violence from the September 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra to May 2012. While the senate has voted down the bill, tens of thousands of protestors have gathered on the streets of Bangkok since late October, with many calling for Yingluck to resign.
The ICJ’s ruling is a direct test of Yingluck’s ability to govern and her legitimacy as defense minister. The royalist, opposition group People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has seized on the ruling as an opportunity to stoke nationalist sentiments within Thailand, accusing the government of ceding Thai territory to Cambodia. Already, hundreds of ultra-nationalist protestors backed by the PAD have demanded the defense ministry to reject the ICJ’s verdict. While Yingluck and Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul both expressed the need for Thailand to comply with ICJ’s decision and maintain peace with Cambodia, the prime minister’s weakened position from the amnesty debacle left her government with little maneuvering room, as protests against both the amnesty bill and the ICJ ruling continue to grow by the day.
Since the ICJ required Thai military personnel to leave the area given by the court to Cambodia, Yingluck’s new alliance with the military top brass will also be put to a test for the first time since this year’s military reshuffle, which saw Yingluck take on the defense portfolio. While Yingluck appears to have the support of Commander-in-Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who called for calm ahead of the final verdict, royalist elements within the Thai armed forces had a long tradition of aligning with the PAD. Whether Yingluck can rely on the generals under her control and coordinate effectively with the military and Cambodian government remains to be seen. Any strategic miscalculations in Bangkok might very well escalate the tensions, as happened during the 2011 military standoff on the Thai-Cambodian border.
The international community will look at Prime Minister Yingluck’s handling of the amnesty bill and the Preah Vihear conflict not only as crucial tests for her leadership, but also to evaluate Thailand’s ability to overcome political dysfunction in order to play its rightful role in the global economy. The current political atmosphere is the most tense since Yingluck took power in 2011, leaving the country in yet another precarious political situation.