Resolving the militarised territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand


Regional Diplomacy led by ASEAN and arbitration by the ICJ resolved the militarised territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand which threatened to escalate into a major interstate conflict following border clashes in 2011.

The twelfth century Preah Vihear Temple lies on the contemporary border of Cambodia and Thailand. During the Second World War, the Thai government joined the Japanese after initially trying to remain neutral, seizing much territory from neighbouring colonies such as French Indochina, including the Preah Vihear Temple. An initial peace agreement with the French ceded this territory to Thailand, but this was later abrogated by the total surrender of Japanese forces at the end of the war. Thus, the Temple and its surrounds returned to French Indochina and were inherited by Cambodia upon its independence in 1953. Thailand retained its claim on the temple, and after bilateral talks failed to reach an agreement in 1953 and 1958, the case was sent to the ICJ for arbitration. In 1962, the ICJ concluded that the temple was indeed on Cambodian territory.1 The issue remained largely dormant until 2008, when the Government of Cambodia took the seemingly innocuous decision to apply for UNESCO world heritage status for the site.2 After initially cooperating on the application, the rise of a new administration in Thailand led to a major escalation of the crisis. Thai troops were deployed to the area, leading to armed clashes in October 2008 and throughout 2009. In 2011, the Thai military began deploying heavy weapons in the area and intense fighting took place, leading to dozens of deaths and the destruction of two tanks.3 Further clashes took place at other points along the border, threatening to escalate into an interstate conflict.4

During the ASEAN conference in May 2011, the Government of Indonesia (as host nation) held talks with the parties. After initially agreeing to a ceasefire and the deployment of Indonesian observers to monitor withdrawals to end the conflict, the Thai government backtracked.5 The fighting, however, did not resume, suggesting the talks were more productive than they appeared, and the dispute was again referred to the ICJ. While the case was being assessed, leading politicians from both countries played a friendly football match in Phnom Penh (Cambodia won 10-7) and declared that the era of unfriendly relations was over.6 The ICJ issued its ruling in 2013, deciding that Cambodia has sovereignty over all the contested territory, requiring Thai troops to withdraw from the area, and a demilitarised zone be established along the international border.7 Dozens of soldiers died in the conflict and 45,000 people forced from their homes, but dispute was resolved.

1 ICJ. Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand). (ICJ, 2021) Available at: (Accessed 3/11/2021)

2 BBC. “Tranquil temple at centre of a storm.” BBC News. (22 May 2008) Available at: (Accessed 3/11/2021)

3 Geospatial Technologies Project. Monitoring Border Conflicts with Satellite Imagery: Cambodia and Thailand – 2008-2011. (Washington, DC, 2015) pp.3-4

4 UCDP. Cambodia (Kampuchea) – Thailand. (UCDP, 2021) Available at: (Accessed 3/11/2021)

5 International Crisis Group. “Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict.” Asia Report, No. 215. (2011) p.22

6 AFP. “Cambodia PM scores in football Diplomacy with Thailand.” Asia One. (24 September 2011) Available at: (Accessed 3/11/2021)

7 ICJ. Request for Interpretation of the Judgment of 15 June 1962 in the Case concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand) (Cambodia v. Thailand). (ICJ, 2021) Available at: (Accessed 3/11/2021)

Start Year


End Year



Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia

UN Regional Group


Type of Conflict

Risk of an interstate conflict

Type of Initiative

Diplomacy, Monitoring, observation, political, and verification missions, Resolution of a militarised territorial dispute

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)




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