THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The highest U.N. court ordered Thailand and Cambodia Monday to pull their soldiers out of a newly defined demilitarized zone on a disputed part of their border around an ancient temple, and told them to revive talks to resolve the decades-old conflict.
Thailand said it would honor the ruling and Cambodia said it looked forward to the cessation of hostilities.
Tens of thousands of villagers on both sides have been relocated, and 18 people have been killed in fighting between the two countries since February.
Defining a demilitarized zone around the temple in a legally binding ruling by 11 votes to five, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said the situation on the border remained unstable and could deteriorate.
Both Cambodia and Thailand lay claim to land around the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sovereignty has been in dispute since the French withdrew from Cambodia in the 1950s.
The temple was awarded to Cambodia in a ruling in 1962 but that did not cover the surrounding area.
Presiding judge Hisashi Owada said there was a real and imminent risk to Cambodia’s rights because of the tension and absence of a settlement.
He ordered the two countries to let observers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) enter the area.
Outgoing Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters at the court: “We are satisfied that the withdrawal of troops is applicable to both Cambodia and Thailand, which is against the wish of the Cambodian side.”
The court rejected Thailand’s request to have the case dismissed and ordered that Cambodia be allowed free access to Preah Vihear temple to provide supplies to non-military personnel.
Cambodia’s foreign minister, Hor Namhong, welcomed the decision and said the setting up of the demilitarized zone would help to establish peace.
“This map means there will be a permanent ceasefire. It will be tantamount to the cessation of aggression of Thailand against Cambodia,” he said in the Hague.
Although its rulings are legally binding, the ICJ has no means to enforce its decisions.
Outgoing Thai Defense Minister Pravit Wongsuwan told Reuters he believed Cambodia may wait for an upcoming change of government in Thailand after a general election on July 3 before acting on the ruling.
“We are prepared to hold consultations with Cambodia if it contacts us, but we believe Cambodia might want to wait for a new Thai government. Any troop withdrawal has to be done jointly by both sides,” Pravit said.
Both sides said they would allow access to ASEAN observers.
ASEAN, of which both Thailand and Cambodia are members, has tried to mediate under the presidency of Indonesia but with little success until now.
It persuaded the two sides to let unarmed military observers into the area but Thailand’s government and army backtracked, saying they wanted the problem settled bilaterally.
However, hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough have risen since the general election in Thailand. It was won by the opposition Puea Thai Party, which has warmer ties with the Cambodian government.
The de facto leader of Puea Thai is Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier who was deposed by the military in 2006 and now lives in self-imposed exile, mainly in Dubai.
He was briefly given a job as an economic adviser by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen after fleeing, widely seen as Hun Sen cocking a snook at his Thai counterpart, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who had demanded that Thaksin be extradited to serve jail time for corruption.
Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is set to be the new prime minister but her election as a lawmaker has still to be endorsed by the electoral authorities and her government is unlikely to take office until mid-August.
Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh and Vithoon Amorn in Bangkok; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Daniel Magnowski