The 900-year-old Hindu temple at the center of a turf war between Thailand and Cambodia

Visitors at Preah Vihear
Visitors at Preah Vihear
Image: Reuters/Pring Samrang
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The South and East China Seas aren’t Asia’s only territorial flashpoints.

The UN’s International Court of Justice in The Hague just delivered a much-anticipated ruling on a different subject: whether Thailand or Cambodia can legally lay claim to the land surrounding a 900-year-old Hindu temple. 

The temple, a World Heritage site called Preah Vihear, sits on a cliff in a mountain range between the two countries. The structure itself wasn’t in dispute, as the Court in 1962 said it belongs to Cambodia. But ownership of 1.8 square miles of land surrounding the temple has been unclear, with both sides saying it’s theirs. There have been clashes between Thai and Cambodian forces near Preah Vihear throughout the years, and in April 2011 some 28 people were killed. Ahead of today’s verdict, schools were closed and villagers vacated the area, fearing another outbreak of violence, and Thai aircraft were spotted flying near the temple.

In a ruling favoring Cambodia, the Court said today at least part of the disputed area—the promontory around the temple—belongs to Phnom Penh. Thailand is “under an obligation to withdraw from that territory the Thai military or police forces or other guards of keepers that were stationed there,” the court said.

It’s too soon to tell what the fallout from the ruling may be. Trade at the border area, consisting mostly of oil, could suffer, though it’s relatively small. A bigger threat is political: Thai nationalists have used the Preah Vihear issue to attack the Thai government in the past, accusing it of caving in to Cambodian aggression. Today’s ruling also comes amid ongoing anti-government protests against prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who critics say engineered a political amnesty bill that would allow her controversial brother, self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to the country after a corruption conviction in 2008 that he says was politically motivated.

“Protests have evolved into anti-government movements that will be invigorated if Thai territory is lost,” Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters. Today’s temple verdict may well act to fan the ideological flames.