BANGKOK (Reuters) - Hundreds of villagers along Thailand’s border with Cambodia have fled their homes and built bunkers ahead of a world court ruling on a turf dispute that could set off a military confrontation and inflame political tension in Bangkok.
If Monday’s decision by the United Nations court in the Hague awards land around the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia, the move could fuel anti-government sentiment in the Thai capital.
Protesters in Bangkok are trying to thwart an amnesty bill they say is designed to nullify self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s 2008 jail term for abuse of power.
Thaksin still looms large over Thai politics because of his influence over Yingluck Shinawatra, his sister and the current prime minister. Some demonstrators are pushing not just for the bill to be scrapped, but also the fall of Yingluck’s government.
The protesters include ultra nationalists and royalists who have used the spat with Cambodia in previous years to whip up anger against Thaksin, with tacit backing from top military generals who overthrew him in a 2006 coup.
“The risk of violence increases if the ruling does not go our way,” Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, a relative of Thaksin, told local television.
“Government opponents could use it to stir the crowd. Thais must not fall victim to nationalist propaganda, they must remember that this issue predates this government.”
The case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concerns a 4.6-square-kilometre (1.8 sq mile) plot of scrub surrounding Preah Vihear. The ICJ awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but did not clarify jurisdiction of the land around it.
Preah Vihear, set atop a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, is among several stretches of the border where sporadic gun and artillery clashes have erupted between Thai and Cambodia troops. Each side has blamed the other for starting the fights, which have caused nationalist outcries in both countries.
The worst battles, in 2011, killed 28 people and damaged a wing of the main temple. After regional diplomatic pressure, both sides withdrew troops from the area in July 2012, replacing them with border patrol units. Cambodia wants the court to rule that Thai troops stay out of the area permanently.
Yingluck has urged Thais to accept the ICJ verdict and said she and Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen, a close ally who once offered the fugitive Thaksin asylum, would keep the peace.
That depends on the troops on the ground. Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said security heads in both countries were in close contact, but added his soldiers were ready to respond to any hostile action.
“We are in constant communication with Cambodia to help maintain peace along the border but we are also prepared to back up our troops,” Prayuth told reporters.
That sort of rhetoric will not sit well with people living near the border, some in villages that were shelled two years ago.
“I can’t sleep at night, I’m afraid of military clashes,” said Loon Sornsee, a tapioca farmer who lives 2 km from the temple. “I have to keep reminding myself where the bunker is.”
The issue is extremely sensitive in both nations and the judgment coincides with a highly anticipated Thai senate debate on the draft amnesty bill, delayed from Friday because it failed to attract the minimum number of 75 members needed for debate.
The bill would absolve of wrongdoing all leaders, soldiers and protesters involved in political unrest since 2004. Yingluck has vowed not to re-introduce it if rejected by the upper house.
Thaksin, a billionaire former telecoms tycoon who now lives in Dubai, is both loved and loathed in Thailand, where he won an unprecedented two terms in office.
While still immensely popular among the rural poor, Thaksin has powerful opponents, who used graft scandals and claims that he was undermining the revered monarchy to mobilize the urban middle classes against him. Thaksin denies the accusations.
His close ties with Cambodia also riled opponents and spawned accusations he had failed to defend Thai interests.
Some experts believe outrage in Bangkok is inevitable.
“Protests have evolved into anti-government movements that will be invigorated if Thai territory is lost,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University.
(This story has been refiled to fix quote in sixth paragraph to remove double negative)
Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez