Riot police stand watch over the Thai Embassy. During the anti-Thai riots of 2003 an enraged mob stormed the embassy gates, looted office equipment and set the place ablaze.
Riot police have been deployed to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh as a dispute over Preah Vihear temple heats up, with several unions threatening to protest against Thai efforts to scuttle the Hindu monument's listing as a World Heritage Site.
“We won’t stop people from demonstrating, but we are here to prevent any violence," said Mary Tes, officer in charge of the 18-man detachment stationed around the clock outside the Thai embassy alongside a fire engine and six firefighters.
“We have to protect them, and the Thai police protect our embassy in Bangkok. We are helping each other," he told the Post on July 3.
The deployment was the latest move in a tit-for-tat escalation of tensions over Preah Vihear. Cambodia closed access to the temple in late June as Thai demonstrators gathered on their side of the nearby border in northern Cambodia, claiming the 11th century ruins belong to Thailand.
The growing row, which has been driven mostly by anger in Bangkok over what many Thais see as their government ceding territory to Cambodia, comes as Cambodian officials are at a UNESCO meeting in Quebec, Canada, to seek World Heritage status for Preah Vihear.
Cambodia has vowed to push ahead with its bid for the World Heritage inscription despite a recent Thai court ruling that Bangkok cannot support the nomination.
Amid the controversy, the Cambodian Watchdog Council, a coalition of five labor unions, and the National Culture and Moral Center filed individual requests with City Hall to stage non-violent demonstrations in Phnom Penh against the Thai ownership claims.
City Hall has denied permission, for now.
“It is not the time for demonstrations. It is time for political parties to have election campaigns. There will be disorder if campaigns and demonstrations occurred simultaneously,” said Pa Socheatvong, deputy municipal governor, referring to the July 27 general election.
“We would not dare to ban or reject their requests, but they must demonstrate with dignity and no violence, and they should do it all in one place after the election,” he added.
Speaking for the Cambodian Watchdog Council, Cambodian Teacher’s Association President Rong Chhun said his group would “lead a big, non-violent demonstration for territorial integrity and Preah Vihear temple, if the Thai side does not respect the international court’s 1962 decision and the Cambodian-Thai treaties of 1904 and 1907.”
The International Court of Justice ruled 46 years ago that the temple belonged to Cambodia.
Chhun also said that “if [the authorities] dare crack down on us, it means they are supporting the Thais and they have no intention to join us in protecting our ancestors' heritage.”
The most recent nationalistic rumblings are reminiscent of the lead-up to the 2003 rioting, during which a mob, enraged over false rumors that a Thai actress claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand, looted and burned the Thai embassy and destroyed several Thai-owned businesses in the capital.
The violence then threw Cambodian-Thai relations into a downward spiral, and the rising tensions now appear to have rattled Phnom Penh's Thai community.
Several Thai nationals declined to speak to reporters, except to say that their bosses had temporarily returned to Thailand.
“They are worried the Cambodians will demonstrate against Thai businessmen to avenge the Thais protesting,” said one Cambodian employed by a Thai. “They will come back when the situation returns to normal.”
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s political parties are split over whether to exploit the controversy in their election campaigns.
Cheam Yeap, senior parliamentarian of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said that the temple dispute is not a matter for domestic politics.
“It is people’s right [to address the matter] but I would implore the public and political parties not to raise Preah Vihear temple as a campaign issue,” Yeap said, adding that the Cambodian government is prepared to protect Thais living in Cambodia.
Representatives of opposition parties who were not in government at the time of the riots appeared more eager to adopt Preah Vihear temple into their platforms.
“We will raise Preah Vihear temple and the Thais’ protests at every stop of our campaign,” said Muth Chantha, spokesman for the Norodom Ranariddh Party.
He promised a counter-demonstration against the Thais after the July 27 voting.
“We are not worried the government will accuse us of incitement. We will speak the truth,” Chantha said.
Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party, said his campaign would make an issue of Preah Vihear, but would target the message only to voters living near the temple site and in Phnom Penh.
“We will raise the issue for our sovereignty and to express national patriotism, for Cambodians to choose the prime minister, not to incite against the Thais,” Sokha said.
Representatives from the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec both said their parties would back away from the issue.
“We already have our political guidelines for campaigning. The Preah Vihear issue is just occurring,” said Eng Chhay Eang, SRP secretary general.