On Monday, February 14, the UN Security Council held a closed session to hear from representatives of Cambodia and Thailand on the subject of their recent border clashes on February 4, 5 and 6 over the contested Temple of Preah Vihear. Ambassadors from 25 nations in addition to the 15 nations that are members of the Security Council are listed as having been present at the meeting.(1) This demonstrates that there is considerable interest at the UN on the subject of the Thai-Cambodia dispute. Both Hor Namhong, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia and Kasit Piromya, the Foreign Minister of Thailand presented their respective national positions on the conflict at the meeting. Also their statements were made available to the press.
The statements by the two Foreign Ministers were significant and helped to explain the nature of the dispute. Minister Namhong presented the Cambodian position (2) that the problem was a dispute over the interpretation of the 1962 International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision which placed the ancient temple within the geographical boundaries of Cambodia. Minister Piromya, proposed for Thailand,(3) that the source of the problem was the lack of political will on the part of Cambodia to solve the territorial dispute through bilateral negotiations.
In 1959, the dispute over the Temple was brought to the ICJ. In a judgment issued June 15,1962, the ICJ supported Cambodia’s claims to the Temple. Thailand disputes the validity of the decision.(4)
Thailand challenges the validity of the map which is the basis for the ICJ decision. Thailand says that the border map has to be updated given the fact that the geological features could have changed from those reflected in the earlier map which was created over 100 years ago. The ICJ judgment, however, says that the 1907 map that Cambodia submitted to the Court was the map used as a basis for the Treaty of 23 March 1907 and other agreements. Since Thailand did not contest the map at the time of the treaty or for a long while afterwards, and also since Thailand benefited from the treaty, and subsequent agreements based on this map, it cannot now begin to claim that that map was not adequate. The map puts the temple clearly within the geographical boundary of Cambodia.
Cambodia says there needs to be some outside entity to help the disputing parties solve the disagreements. Thailand favors a bilateral process between Cambodia and Thailand as what is needed to settle the disputed issues. Hence the two parties not only disagree on the substance of the dispute, but also on what process is needed to resolve the problem.
Thailand says a recent source of tension is the 2008 application by Cambodia for the Temple of Preah Vilhear to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thailand proposes that it is premature to have made such a submission before the border issues were adequately resolved. On Wednesday, February 16, 120 members of Parliament of the ruling Democrat Party and its coalition partners in Thailand asked the House speaker to submit a letter to UNESCO asking the UN body to delay the final processes for listing the Temple of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site. An article in the Bangkok Post, reports that Atthaporn Ponbutr, one of the members of Parliament, said that he and his colleagues oppose the listing of the temple by UNESCO until the border issues are settled.(5)The article warns that “if UNESCO gives final approval to Cambodia’s listing request, the current bad ties between Bangkok and PhnomPenh will worsen and could lead to war.”
Also speaking at the Security Council meeting was Marty Natalegawa, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, in his position as Chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Lynn Pascoe, the Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs at the UN. Pascoe’s statement to the closed session of the Security Council was not made available to the press, nor did he appear for the stakeout for journalists even though the Spokesman for the Secretary General announced that Pasco would be available at a press stakeout. Jared Kotler, the spokesperson for the Department of Public Affairs at the UN said that the department only provides copies of Pascoe’s briefings when the Security Council holds public meetings.(6)
Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa held a stakeout for journalists. He encouraged both Cambodia and Thailand to commit themselves to settling the dispute peacefully and through dialogue. As Secretary of ASEAN, Natalegawa has offered to help the two parties to the conflict find a means to settle it.(7)
Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the Brazilian Ambassador to the UN, who holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month of February, presented a press statement on behalf of Security Council members after the adjournment of the closed session.(8) The press statement expressed the unanimous concern of the Security Council about the recent armed clashes between Cambodia and Thailand. It called on the parties to be restrained and refrain from such actions so as to avoid any action that could aggravate the situation. It also urged the parties to establish a permanent ceasefire and to implement it and to resolve the situation peacefully and through effective dialogue.
Also the Security Council press statement encouraged ASEAN’s efforts to help the parties settle the dispute, and encouraged the parties to cooperate with ASEAN.
ASEAN has scheduled a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the member nations of ASEAN for February 22 to consider the problem.
The Security Council session was called to hear the presentations of the rival claims. The resulting press statement supported ASEAN’s efforts to help the parties to solve the dispute. While Cambodia was asking for a third party to be part of trying to settle the dispute, Thailand had focused on its claim that only a bilateral effort would be able to resolve the problems. After the Security Council meeting, both parties accepted that ASEAN play a role in settling the dispute, though not necessarily agreeing on what that role should be. Another function of Monday’s Security Council meeting was to bring international attention to the issues under dispute.
The dispute raises the question of what kind of intervention by ASEAN or the UN can be helpful in creating the basis for a peaceful solution of the conflict. Just hours after the Security Council meeting, fighting broke out again at the border area. Each side blamed the other for initiating the hostilities. Cambodia requested that ASEAN send observers to the site of the hostilities to help guarantee that a cease fire holds. Thailand is reported to have opposed involving such observers. One Thai commentator, Akkharaphong Khamkhun who teaches in Thailand at the Thammasat’s Pridi Banomyong International College suggested that if Thailand believes it has a legitimate grievance with the 1962 ICJ decision, it should go back to the court and ask for a new ruling on the issue. “Why don’t we just bring it back to the ICJ again?” he said, “We need someone to be a mediator who can find out the truth.” (9)
But such a proposal ignores the fact that the current dispute appears to be over Thailand’s opposition to UNESCO’s listing the temple as a World Heritage site, a listing which was initiated by Cambodia.
The challenge exists to peacefully negotiate an end to the conflict without war or a threat of war. Will ASEAN, given the encouragement and support by the UN Security Council, be able to succeed in its efforts to help Cambodia and Thailand find a means to resolve this conflict?
1) On February 15, 2011, the UN Journal reported on the closed Security Council meeting. The report listed the following nations as participating in the meeting, along with the 15 members of the Security Council, the Foreign Ministers of Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia (on behalf of ASEAN), and Lynn Pascoe Under Secretary General for Political Affairs.
“The President, with the consent of the Council, invited the representatives of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Canada, Croatia, Egypt, Finland, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mexico, Myanmar, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Turkey and Viet Nam, at their request, to participate in the consideration without the right to vote, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Charter and rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.” (pg 32 of the UN Journal)
2) Hor Namhong (Cambodia) on the Cambodian-Thai border – Security Council Media Stakeout, 14 February 2011.
Informal comments to the media by H.E. Mr. Hor Namhong, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia on the situation on the border between Cambodia and Thailand.
3) Kasit Piromya (Thailand) on the Cambodian-Thai border – Security Council Media Stakeout, 14 February 2011.
Informal comments to the media by H.E. Mr. Kasit Piromya, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand on the situation on the border between Cambodia and Thailand.
4) For the June 15, 1962 International Court of Justice judgment: See
For a Summary: http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/45/4873.pdf
5) ”MPs Oppose Listing of Ancient Temple”, Bangkok Post, February 16, 2011
6) Email from Jared Kotler, Press Secretary for the Political Affairs Department at the UN February 16, 2011.
7) Informal comments to the media by H.E. Dr. R.M. Marty M. Natalegawat, Foreign Minister of Indonesia and Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the situation on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, 14 February 2011.
8) Informal comments to the media by H.E. Mrs. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Permanent Representative of Brazil and President of the Security Council on the situation on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, 14 February 2011.
9) “Thailand should accept mediation to solve border dispute with Cambodia”, Sinfah Tunsarawuth, Xinha News Agency, 2/16/2011.
By Ronda Hauben
A version of this article appears on the blog of Ronda Hauben at: