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Cambodians Favor Diplomatic Solution to Temple Standoff With Thailand

Nationalist fervor has been rising in Cambodia as anger mounts over what Cambodians consider to be an illegal occupation of their land around the Preah Vihear temple by Thai troops. However, with bitter memories of three decades of war still fresh in many people's minds, political analysts say the Cambodian government will continue to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Rory Byrne has this report from Phnom Penh.

Buddhist services were held across Cambodia for the three soldiers killed in fighting with Thai troops around Preah Vihear temple on October 16.

Nationalist anger has risen in Cambodia since last week when Cambodian and Thai troops exchanged gunfire around the temple. Cambodians consider the dispute over land just the latest in a long series of arguments over land with their more powerful neighbor.

In 1962, The International Court of Justice ruled the 900-year-old temple lies in Cambodia, but a main access route to it is in Thailand. The dispute over the land was dormant for decades, however, until a few months ago, when Thai nationalists objected to Cambodia's petition to have the complex declared a United Nations World Heritage site.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently threatened to turn the area around the temple into a "life and death battlefield" if Thailand refused to withdraw its soldiers from what he says is Cambodian territory. The Thais deny crossing into Cambodia.

Chea Vannath is an independent political analyst in Phnom Penh. She says that in light of Mr. Hun Sen's victory in recent elections, he is anxious to prove his strongman credentials to the domestic audience.

"He [has] achieved a lot of things already in his political life and it's time for him to prove that he's really serious about protecting the integrity and sovereignty of Cambodia," Chea said. "It's just the right time, because he won 90 seats - a landslide victory, he got everything, so this one is the next stage."

However, some political analysts in Cambodia say the last thing the country really wants is a war with Thailand. Cambodia's economy is growing but the country remains poor and is still recovering from three decades of conflict.

Plus, the army is small and ill-equipped compared with Thai forces.

But, say some Cambodians, many of its troops are hardened fighters experienced in guerrilla warfare. Even Mr. Hun Sen noted that strength, saying "Ants can hurt elephants."

Chea Vannath says despite rhetoric, the government will search for a diplomatic solution.

"We have plenty of peaceful negotiation institutions such as [the] U.N. or ASEAN or the Paris Peace Agreement or the International Court," Chea said. "So we have plenty of mechanisms rather than focusing on force because when it gets to war both countries stand to lose."

Mr. Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat are expected to discuss the dispute on Friday or Saturday while they attend a summit with European leaders in Beijing.

So far, peace talks have made little progress and Cambodian and Thai troops reportedly are digging in deeper around Preah Vihear, preparing for a long standoff.