Cambodian anger over temple not exploding, for now

PHNOM PENH Tue Feb 8, 2011 12:11pm EST

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Tension along Thai border

Wed, Feb 9 2011

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Generations of Cambodians have fretted over what they see as the grabbing of land by voracious neighbors, but recent clashes over territory on the Thai border have stirred little outrage in the Cambodian capital.

Part of the reason appears to be the Cambodian government does not want public anger getting out of hand while it appeals to the United Nations for help in sorting out the dispute with Thailand over the 11th century Preah Vihear temple on the northern border with Thailand.

The Thai flag was fluttering over a promenade along the banks of the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, along with those of a host of other countries, in a colorful display of the once-isolated country's longing for international ties.

News of the border clashes featured in the media, with television repeatedly showing clips of some minor damage to the temple from Thai shelling. But there was no sign of a repeat of events in 2003, when a crowd enraged by a perceived slight on their country's honor ransacked the Thai embassy.

"The Thais want to take our land," said a city taxi driver. "The Thais on that side and the Vietnamese on the other."

The ancient Cambodian, or Khmer, empire covered much of mainland southeast Asia and Preah Vihear, or Khao Phra Viharn as it is known in Thailand, is one of the Khmer ruins that dot central Thailand, southern Laos and Cambodia.

No one is quite sure why the Khmer empire, with its center at Angkor, went into decline, but modern Cambodians feel as if for centuries they have been squeezed between their much more populous neighbors to the west and east.

But for now, it would seem anger over Preah Vihear will remain passive.

"Life goes on and Cambodians are used to this kind of thing happening on the border," said Hang Chaya of the Khmer Institute of Democracy think tank. "The feeling among the public is strong, they're just not expressing it."


Opposition politicians have long said territorial encroachment has been going on along the Vietnamese border, but the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has had good relations with Vietnam since he broke with the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, is seen as having done little about it.

Letting public outrage spin out of control about the Thai border could open the government to renewed criticism about what the opposition says has been inaction on the Vietnamese border.

"The government needs to be careful," said Hang Chaya. "Once the smoke clears, it will be back to political point-scoring."

Police stopped an attempt to protest outside the Thai embassy on Monday.

Seng Theary, who runs the Center for Cambodian Civic Education, said political interests had fueled the anger that led to the attack on the Thai embassy in 2003, which occurred in the run-up to a Cambodian election.

This time, Cambodian politicians had not used the sort of rhetoric that inflamed fury, while ordinary people, though angry, were beset with problems in their day-to-day lives in one of the region's poorest countries.

"It's a numbed anger," she said. "We're living with a series of problems, this is just another one."

Phnom Penh residents said Cambodia should fight to keep its land. But not now.

"It's our land, we're really angry, but our government is doing things peacefully, going through the U.N. so now we're waiting for the U.N. to act," said Sum Roathmony, sitting on a bench in a city park, reading a newspaper about the trouble. (Editing by Jason Szep and Ron Popeski)

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Comments (2)
Bhraman wrote:
“No one is quite sure why the Khmer empire, with its center at Angkor, went into decline, but modern Cambodians feel as if for centuries they have been squeezed between their much more populous neighbors to the west and east.”By Robert Birsel
In a brief note of Khmer Empire:
Angkor period was the time of religious transitions, from Hinduism to Buddhism. It was like Judaism to Christianity. Many Hindu temples were converted to Buddhist temples. There was no internal war during religious transition. Khmers were experienced the most prosperity (blesses). Khmers adopted Buddhist way of life. Khmers accepted new comers (immigrants: Tai people today they are Thai and Laos) into their land and less resistance to others (Cham and Viet). Khmers took Tai people into their families as their own people. When time went by Khmers had been confronted by Cham forces. Most the times, Khmer kings were the heads of the Khmer armies. Kings went to wars. Tais became more like Khmers from A-Z. They built up strength from within Khmers. Tai changed to Siam (the same people) sacked Khmers from within Khmer Empire while Khmers were concentrated with Cham and Viet. Siam (Thai) robbed Khmers everything from A-Z. Khmer king had to move city to new location while Siamese (Thais) looted everything from the Angkor city. Thais (Siamese) proclaimed victory and mocked at Khmer’s hospitality and kindness. Since Thais have looked down on Khmers and called Khmers “stupid.” Since Khmers have called Thais “theft.”

Feb 09, 2011 7:38pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Dharmajit wrote:
I’ve always been intrigued by this same question – as to why these magnificent civilizations here as in elsewhere went into decline in such a dramatic manner. Today, little of that glory remains – though the region is fast growing and on the way to peace and prosperity.

In my view, it could have been the gradual decline of cultural anchors that define a people, their values and ethos with competing influences of religion, war, politics and ecomonics/trade. The greatest period of this empire was when economic activity based on cultural values was engaged in with vigor – whether it was building cities and temples (like Angkor Vat) or engaging in maritime trade with South and South-east Asia. As these declined, with no viable alternative – the reason for existence (of the empire) so to speak also came to question.

When compared to neighboring Thailand for example, Cambodia seems to have less of the heritage left (or probably doesn’t speak for itself as well). Theiving colonialism from foreign powers of course did nothing to help – though they cannot be blamed for this decline. The ensuing wars in the 20th century point to a ideological bankruptcy – fanatical communism, muderous cults around dictators, and other ravaging ideas. This in stark contrast to the brilliant flourish of creativity and ingenuity of the 9th to 13th centuries..

It is sad as well as surprising to see this outcome.I hope and wish the Cambodian people do well in defining and asserting their identity and cultural values, in what sure remains a charming and fascinating country – and one that is my dream to visit.!

Feb 14, 2011 8:43am EST  --  Report as abuse
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