Phra Viharn Temple: Cambodia v. Thailand

On October 11th, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that their ruling pertaining to the contested ownership of land surrounding Phra Viharn Temple would be delayed until February 2014. This is the second time the ICJ has rendered a decision to remedy the historical territory dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and the ownership of Phra Viharn. The first time this dispute came before the ICJ was in 1962.

The ancient Hindu temple of Phra Viharn is situated on a 1,722 foot cliff in the Dangrek Mountains of Cambodia and has been a source of dispute between Cambodia and Thailand for over a hundred years. In 1904, the French colonial powers in charge of Cambodia entered into an agreement with Thailand, then known as Siam, to set a border between the two countries and around Phra Viharn. The two governments decided to negotiate the boundaries with the understanding that the watershed line of the Dangrek mountain range would constitute the border. This mutual agreement would place Phra Viharn Temple completely within Thai territory.  However, the map that was generated by the French colonials depicted a boarder that deviated from the watershed line and portrayed the Phra Viharn Temple within Cambodian territory.

In 1954, when France vacated Cambodia, Thai forces quickly occupied the Phra Viharn Temple and the region surrounding the site. Cambodia contested the advancement made by the Thai forces and in 1959 took their dispute to the International Court of Justice.  Cambodia argued that the map depicting Phra Viharn temple as being on Cambodian soil was the binding document. Thailand countered stating that the map was invalid and completely violated the original working understanding with regards to the watershed line. On June 15, 1962 the court ruled 9 to 3 that the temple belonged to Cambodia.

The boundary dispute remained out of the international spotlight until July 8, 2008 when the World Heritage Committee decided to add Phra Viharn Temple to the World Heritage Site list. This aroused several protests from Thailand because the map proposed by Cambodia implied Cambodian ownership of disputed land around the temple. The Thai government withdrew its formal support for the World Heritage Site listing of Phra Viharn Temple and the Thai ambassador to the UN, Don Pramudwinai, accused Cambodia of wanting “not only Phra Viharn but the entire common border . . . with no legal status.” Several violent outbursts between the two counties over the past five years have damaged the temple and led to lost lives.

In April of this year, both Thailand and Cambodia presented their oral pleadings to the ICJ, trying to convince the court of their country’s proper ownership in the disputed area surrounding the Phra Viharn Temple. Scholars have called on the ICJ to offer joint ownership of the territory as an amicable solution to remedy the historical problem. Using the European micro-state Andorra, located in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, as an example, the ICJ could render both countries “winners” and fashion a decisive end when the ruling is announced this February.

What are your thoughts with regards to joint ownership of Phra Viharn Temple and the surrounding land?

Could this solution work? What other solutions could be determined by the ICJ?

Have you been to Phra Viharn Temple?


Sources: International Court of Justice, New York Times, Cambodia Daily, Pattaya Mail

Picture: Asia News

One comment

  1. Although I agree that joint ownership is an “amicable” solution, I do not think, in practice, it would be effective. I think the ICJ has to go back to the Siam, the original mutual agreement, between Thailand and Cambodia.

    Originally, the Phra Viharn Temple, as per the boundary line, was solely in Thai territory. The two nations negotiated and agreed that the watershed line of the Dangrek mountain range would be the boundary; however, the map, drawn by the French colonists in charge of Cambodia, deviated from the agreed upon boundary line and depicted the Temple as solely in Cambodian territory. A map misrepresenting a mutual agreement cannot possibly be a legal binding document.

    It is noted by scholars that joint ownership would declare each of them “winners” and put a decisive end to this ongoing issue. I beg to differ; this would not put a “decisive” end to this conflict. It would simply leave Thailand and Cambodia in the same position they are in now: continuously arguing about the rights and ownership of the Temple.

    Essentially, nothing would be resolved if the court decided on joint ownership because I do not see how these countries could amicably govern this Temple together. It seems they have been fighting far too long for complete sovereignty over it to just compromise, or give up, now.

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