Cambodia nationalism fired by temple row with Thailand

Cambodian soldiers load munitions at Preah Vihear temple (5 Feb 2011)
Image caption The ancient temple has become a military encampment for the Cambodians

Cambodia says an 11th-Century temple has been damaged during continued cross-border clashes with Thai troops.

An official statement said damage to the disputed Preah Vihear temple was caused by Thai artillery bombardment. Thailand has so far not commented.

The fighting has claimed five lives since Friday and thousands of villagers have been evacuated.

Cambodian troops have turned the 900-year-old ruins of the temple into an armed camp. They are perched high on a ridge with a commanding view of the dusty Cambodian plains but are highly vulnerable to fire from Thai positions just a few hundred metres away.

"I had just finished my lunch when the shells started to land," said Private Kun, one of about a hundred soldiers lounging in the temple complex between battles. "We all scrambled to get inside the bunker."

The soldiers said that rockets, mortar rounds and artillery shells rained down for about three hours during the first day's fighting on Friday. The bombardments were less sustained during the following days.

Tourist trap

Fires have blackened much of the scrub on the hillside and the ground is littered with shell fragments. A pagoda further down the hill - just opposite the Thai front line - suffered a direct hit.

A group of soldiers playing cards in one of the Hindu temple's stone chambers said they thought the Thais wanted to capture the temple because it would bring in tourist dollars. Poorly paid Cambodian soldiers are acutely aware of the vast sums being earned in the thriving tourist trade at the temples at Angkor Wat just a three-hour drive away.

There has been heightened tension in the region since Cambodia won World Heritage status for the temple in 2008.

The most recent tension was sparked this month when a Cambodian court sentenced two members of a Thai nationalist movement to up to eight years in prison after finding them guilty of espionage.

There has never been more than a trickle of tourists to the temple at Preah Vihear - because of its remoteness and the obvious dangers - and that has stopped entirely now.

The Cambodian army appears to be reinforcing its positions in the area.

Tanks can be seen in the deserted villages and along side roads, their barrels pointed in the direction of the Thai frontier. Armoured vehicles were also on the move along the main road shortly before the latest round of fighting began.

Growing nostalgia

This used to be one of the most isolated and poorest parts of Cambodia, but the government has now completed work on the new road - the region's first reliable connection with the rest of the country.

Image caption Local people are being asked to move further away from the disputed area

Many say the road has added to tension with Thailand. It clearly helps the military build up its forces quickly.

"About 16 Thai soldiers just started moving down the road towards us, and so we opened fire at them with rocket propelled grenades," said Private Dan Viseth, who was manning a position at a road junction at the foot of the ridge.

"It's the first time I've ever fired on Thais," he said.

This part of northern Cambodia was the last redoubt of the Khmer Rouge who ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s and held out in this area well into the 1990s.

The regime was responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians during the 1970s.

Some of the soldiers are former Khmer Rouge fighters who were integrated into the national army.

"When Ta Mok [a feared Khmer Rouge leader] was in charge here, the Thais never dared to attack us," says the owner of a makeshift restaurant in Slek Ro, a refugee camp where people were moved during earlier outbreaks of fighting.

"Now that we've sent these young soldiers, the Thais will take advantage."

Now the people in this dusty, forlorn encampment are being asked to move even further back from the border.

Government trucks have been evacuating the villages. The women and children went on Friday but many men are reluctant to leave their businesses despite the dangers.

A salvo of rocket fire landed close to the houses at Slek Ro during the fighting on Saturday.

Nationalist passions have been aroused by the latest fighting - with real anger directed at the old enemy, Thailand.

But there is also frustration with the perceived ineffectiveness of the Cambodian government. The result, at least in this isolated corner of the country, appears to be growing nostalgia for one of the twentieth century's most notorious regimes.

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