Standing across the street from the Thai Embassy during the 2003 anti-Thai riots, Than Yom watched as thousands of young demonstrators set fire to the compound and the Thai ambassador and staff unceremoniously climbed a wall at the building’s rear and escaped by boat.
“They were throwing stones and burning tires outside the embassy wall,” she recalled.
Those riots five years ago were the result of a spurious rumor that a Thai soap opera actress had said that Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand.
Now, Cambodia and Thailand are once again caught in an emotional contest involving an Angkorian site—this time the border-hugging Preah Vihear temple, which Cambodia hopes to have listed as a World Heritage Site.
Even so, 50-year-old Than Yom said she wasn’t feeling any sense of deja vu as she walked by the embassy, selling sweet sticky-rice from a pot she balanced on her head.
“The demonstrators will not do the same because the government of Cambodia had to pay a lot of money to the Thai government [in compensation],” she said.
Behind Than Yom, more than 20 police officers from the Interior Ministry, as well as district and municipal departments, guarded the embassy on heightened alert this week.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on Tuesday made a personal plea to Prime Minister Hun Sen for the protection of the Thai Embassy and Thai businesses in Cambodia, media reported. Thai protestors have taken to the streets of Bangkok to protest Cambodia’s bid to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, and a dozen or so demonstrators have camped near the temple on the Thai side of the border.
But in Phnom Penh, Than Yom, a widowed mother of five with one son married to a Thai woman and living in Thailand, said she wasn’t aware of Cambodia’s attempt to list Preah Vihear, nor did she know why extra police guarded the Thai Embassy.
With the World Heritage Committee set to hear Cambodia’s bid to list Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site either Sunday or Monday at its annual session in Quebec, Canada, Cambodian sentiments appear to run the gamut from concerned to indifferent to nationalistic.
A 44-year-old Cambodian jogging near Independence Monument this week said he would participate in any and all demonstrations in Phnom Penh calling for Thais to recognize Cambodia’s sovereignty over the temple.
“All Cambodians know the temple belonged to Cambodia since 1962 [when the International Court of Justice ruled it to be inside Cambodia]. We want to share that this is our temple and have the right to list it as a World Heritage[site],” he said, requesting anonymity.
Informed by radio and newspapers on the political wrangling in Bangkok, with the Thai Cabinet suspending its endorsement of Cambodia’s heritage bid, the man said Cambodians, too, had a right to show their nationalist spirit.
“[Thais] always look down on Cambodians. We must react to the Thai demonstrators,” he said. “This is our temple. Why can’t we list it as a World Heritage[site]?”
On the riverfront across from the Royal Palace, other Cambodians expressed indifference toward, and even unfamiliarity with, the Preah Vihear temple issue.
Chan Soya, 30, visiting the capital from Kompong Cham province with his six-member family, could neither recall the riots of 2003 nor guess why security was heightened at the Thai Embassy.
Runchan Mouny, visiting the Royal Palace from Kandal province, said she was living in Battambang in 2003 and also didn’t recall the anti-Thai riots. Nor did the 26-year-old know why security might be heightened now at the Thai Embassy.
“I don’t know if [Preah Vihear temple] belongs to Cambodia or Thailand,” she added.
Suon Phalla, 20, a vendor with a cage of sparrows, said he watched security increase at the Thai Embassy as he drove by every day this week on his way to the Palace from his home in Meanchey district.
However, Suon Phalla said he was also unfamiliar with the temple and the issues surrounding it now.
Local Thais, meanwhile, are expressing concern for their own safety as the World Heritage Committee decides on Preah Vihear’s status as a heritage site.
Patcharee Setsara, owner of Thai restaurant Setsara, recently got a phone call from her mother in Thailand.
“She told me that if something goes wrong, I have to go to the embassy to get in a helicopter,” she said Wednesday, sitting beneath her restaurant’s awning, green vines and plants crawling up the fence.
Setsara opened in 2005. But only now is the restaurant inquiring about purchasing insurance, Setsara said, fearing another round of anti-Thai riots. A guard watches the restaurant at night, but she wasn’t sure if she’d increase security.
“Normally, I don’t worry. I don’t have time to watch TV. I don’t have time to think about this,” she said.
A military police officer stationed at the Thai Embassy this week said the situation is calm, and authorities would work to keep things that way.
“We are just prepared to prevent it if we have any protestors here,” he said.