Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cambodia confident on ICJ verdict

While the Preah Vihear dispute has rekindled nationalist and patriotic sentiments in Thailand, the week-long hearing at The Hague was outwardly met with relative calm across the border.

Coverage in the Cambodian press has been limited after the week of legal argument into Cambodia's request for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to reinterpret the 1962 ruling. The ICJ is expected to deliver its ruling in October.

The main exception was reporting of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's call for calm from both sides on Monday, when he addressed several hundred villagers at a pagoda in Prey Veng province to explain Phnom Penh's position.

''I contacted Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and said it doesn't matter what the court's decision is, Cambodia and Thailand will not become enemies because Cambodia and Thailand are like tongue and teeth,'' Hun Sen said, adding he was confident Cambodia would win. ''They cannot be separated from each other.''

One organisation that has been keeping a close watch on local sentiment is the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which has a nationwide network covering 5,000 villages. The head of the centre, Youk Chhang, said the centre had spoken to about 100 people a day, many of whom had gathered for the Khmer New Year, and noted their opinions about the ICJ hearing. All the interviews - whether in the field, by phone or by email - were transcribed and the names and addresses of the interviewees noted.

Despite the muted media response in the country, he said Preah Vihear was in every Cambodian's heart and they all took a personal interest in the issue.

''Cambodians have recently been taking a more civilised position in regard to the court case and this, I believe, has been influenced by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,'' he said.

''Even though they know the issues well, they want to respect the legal process and leave it up to the judges to make a final decision.''

The majority of respondents from ethnic groups in Preah Vihear province had the simple belief that Thailand was involved in an audacious land grab and was using its political and military might to not only invade Cambodia, but also influence international opinion.

The area surrounding the temple is home to several indigenous groups, including the Kraol people.

''I became familiar with this issue recently through the media,'' said Saray Poeun, an ethnic Kraol living in Kratie province.

''I'm unhappy to hear that Thailand has always held on to the idea of invading our country. As a Kraol, the temple and land belong to the Kraol people, the Khmer and other ethnic groups in Cambodia. I appeal to the ICJ to find justice for us.''

Other residents of Preah Vihear province complained of the impact the dispute has had on their livelihoods. Saom Pheareak said it was impossible that ''Khmer kings built a temple on land that did not belong to Cambodia. Thailand used military power to seize that land. This act was detrimental to the lives of people along the border.''

A dozen law students and graduates were interviewed about the ICJ hearing, and few found any merit in Thailand's legal argument, describing it as ''lies'' and ''weak''. They all said they expected the ICJ to find in favour of Cambodia, but were unsure of Thailand's willingness to accept the ruling.

''The interpretation could lead to the end of the long territorial conflict between Thailand and Cambodia,'' said 20-year-old law graduate Sok Vanseka.

''But it also depends on the situation in Thailand; they may or may not accept the ICJ decision. Cambodia is not seeking to alter the 1962 verdict which is in effect. Thailand accused Cambodia of falsifying the map in order to occupy 4.6 square kilometres. The Thai argument is very weak.''

Chhay Vannlihuong, 20, a student at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh said: ''Thailand's argument was based upon a lie.

''They used unilaterally produced maps in order to claim the 4.6 square kilometre piece of land. We depend heavily on the maps produced by the French. The Thais said that the ICJ should not reinterpret the ruling, because Thailand has already implement the 1962 verdict. But I don't agree. If Thailand had respected the decision of the court, we would not have any problems today.''

Several students pointed to Thai ''invasions'' into Cambodian territory over the past 50 years, and a refusal to return antiquities taken from the temple, as proof that Thailand had not respected the 1962 ruling.

Former Khmer Rouge cadres also offered a historical perspective on the dispute and the two small ''Red Houses'' built by military commander Ta Mok, which today stand inside Thai territory.

''Ta Mok's troops had control of the Preah Vihear temple between 1979 and 1991,'' said former Khmer Rouge cadre Vong Pheak.

''The Red Houses inside Thai territory that we can see from our land were built by Ta Mok. After some Khmer Rouge cadres defected from the [Cambodian] government, Thailand took control of the [Red] houses''

A common argument repeated by the Khmer Rouge fighters is that Thai soldiers were not seen near Preah Vihear after 1979 and they never attempted to take the temple from them. One said he did not know the Red Houses were occupied by Thai troops until the border skirmish in 2008.

''Not a single foreign soldier came near the temple,'' said former Khmer Rouge soldier Chum Oeun.

''Only Khmer people lived there. The Red House was built by Ta Mok. Ta Mok directed the construction. The workers were brought from the Anlong Veng area. He [Ta Mok] built that house to serve as a place for his guests to relax after visiting the temple. At that time, not a single Thai soldier came anywhere near there.''

While strident in their defence of Cambodian territory against what they perceived as Thai land-grabbing, several of those interviewed could not understand the need for Cambodia's request for a re-interpretation of the 1962 ruling.

''Why do we need to re-interpret it?'' asked Sam-Ang Ek Sambo, a government official in Kampong Speu province: ''If a husband and wife have been divorced in court, they are divorced. No need to ask the court to read the verdict again. It's a waste of time.''

Others questioned why the hearings were held over the New Year period of both countries and why they were only made accessible online when so few rural Cambodians have access to the internet.-Bangkok Post (April 28, 2013)

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