Conflict & Justice

U.N. orders new DMZ on Thai-Cambodia border


A Cambodian solider looks across at the Thai border from the ancient Preah Vihear temple where a military camp has been set up February 9, 2011 in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia.


Paula Bronstein

The U.N.'s highest court has ordered Thailand and Cambodia to draw troops out of disputed border turf surrounding an ancient temple and draw up a demilitarized zone.

Since 2008, both nations' armies have dug in around the 11th-century temple, a World Heritage site, and occasionally fired off bombs and bullets to defend their positions. Tens of thousands of villages have sporadically fled the violence and the temple itself is scarred from the fighting.

Now it's decision time for generals on both sides. Both will likely regard any drawdown as a loss of face. No army wants to withdrawal from what it considers its own territory.

But this U.N. ruling offers an opportunity to pull out with the least possible damage to national pride.

If they can't stomach that, armed conflict beckons. Regional mediators with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations couldn't lead Thailand and Cambodia to compromise. If the U.N.'s decision from The Hague is ignored, then the two nations are likely out of options.

Just what are they fighting over again? Less than two square miles of unremarkable grassland surrounding the temple. The dispute has enflamed nationalism, particularly in Thailand where a media mogul/protest leader called for Thailand to invade Cambodia and seize its iconic Angkor Wat temples.

But despite their posturing, neither army appears too keen on an all-out war. And Thais, whose patriotic bluster has boomed the loudest, can at least feel relieved that the U.N. didn't declare the terrain to be Cambodia's outright. The temple itself is rightly Cambodian, according to a 1962 U.N. court ruling that classified the structure as a relic of the Khmer empire.