Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 16, 2008; Stung Cambodians say ready to take on Thailand

PHNOM PENH - An eruption of fighting on the Thai-Cambodian border triggered a wave of patriotism in the Cambodian capital on Thursday, with many ordinary people saying they were willing to take up arms to protect their country.

"We need to defend our land. We must not lose to the Thais," security guard Bun Roeun, 36, said as he sat at a street-side stall, flicking through newspapers plastered with coverage of Wednesday's clashes near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple.

"If the Thais continue their attempt to cross our border, I am ready to join the army to fight back," he said.

After eight centuries of decline, from the mighty Khmer empire that built Angkor Wat and dominated the region to a small, war-scarred nation sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodians are very touchy about their territory.

The country's precise area -- 181,035 square km -- is drummed into every schoolchild, and any perceived squeezing of its borders is taken as a personal affront by many of its 13 million people.

"You have to defend your house," said 48-year-old motorbike taxi driver Chea Sokean, 48. "If the Thai troops want to steal our house, we have to chase them away."

"We can't stand and watch the Thai army take our land," another 48-year-old, Yos Kan, said.

Such sentiments limit the room for manoeuvre for Prime Minister Hun Sen, even though the wily former Khmer Rouge guerrilla won an election landslide in July to add to his two decades in power.

Newspapers were awash with the Cambodian claims of Thai aggression -- just as Thai papers were awash with the exact opposite -- and Kampuchea Thmei (New Cambodia) ran an editorial headlined "Ready for Sacrifice".

Phnom Penh has admitted that two of its soldiers died in the fighting. Both sides are sending reinforcements in the form of armour and artillery to the border, raising fears of an escalating and wider conflict.

However, Rasmei Kampuchea, Cambodia's largest circulation paper, also ran a front-page government appeal for Thai businesses and people to be left alone in the capital.

The exhortation is a far cry from 2003, when a nationalist mob torched the Thai embassy and around a dozen Thai businesses in Phnom Penh in a row over Angkor Wat, Cambodia's most potent national symbol.

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