Cambodia and Thailand pulled hundreds of soldiers out of a disputed border area on Wednesday, a year after a ruling by the UN’s highest court, replacing them with police and security guards.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on July 18 last year ordered the neighbours to demilitarise a strip of land adjacent to the Preah Vihear temple which was the scene of deadly clashes in 2011.
“It’s an appropriate time to carry out the ICJ’s verdict,” Cambodian Defence minister Tea Banh said during the exit ceremony on the Cambodian side, shown live on television, though he warned that “full peace has not been ensured”.
Nearly 500 Cambodian troops will be redeployed from the zone around the temple but will be replaced by some 250 policemen and 100 guards supposedly employed to preserve the 11th century site.
Yutthasak Sasiprapa, a Thai deputy prime minister responsible for national security, said Bangkok had also pulled back its soldiers and instead deployed border patrol police, also believed to number in their hundreds.
“Thailand and Cambodia are setting up a joint team to work on the terms of reference for Indonesian observers,” he added, referring to a team to be sent by Jakarta to monitor the situation in the 4.6-square-kilometre (1.8-square-mile) area of disputed land.
In February last year, 10 people were killed in fighting at the Preah Vihear temple site and fresh clashes broke out further west in April 2011, leaving 18 dead.
The ICJ subsequently ruled that both countries should withdraw forces around the 900-year-old Khmer temple.
But the order was held up as neither country appeared ready to make the first move.
The ICJ decision came after Cambodia launched a bitter legal battle before the court in late April 2011 in which it asked for an interpretation of a 1962 ruling on Preah Vihear.
Thailand does not dispute Cambodia’s ownership of the temple, but both sides claim an adjacent patch of land.
A Thai government spokesman said the withdrawal did not signal a climbdown over the contested land, but was instead a diplomatic compromise to help smooth relations ahead of the 2015 establishment of a Southeast Asian trading bloc.
“The troop pull-out is to pave the way for Indonesian observers to enter the area and also to prepare for the Asean Economic Community,” said Anusorn Eiemsaard, deputy government spokesman.