By Robert Birsel
PHNOM PENH | Tue Feb 8, 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)