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Border Dispute Seen Unifying Myriad Groups

Cambodia students hold the Cambodian national flags as they attend the Independence Day celebration at the Independence Monument in the capital Phnom Penh.

Analysts say the northern border dispute has unified Cambodians under a potentially dangerous banner of nationalism, following recent clashes with Thailand.

Fighting earlier this month has drawn condemnation from ruling party members, the opposition, rights groups and others, who believe Thai forces crossed into Cambodia during fighting earlier this month.

“The language of the government has been parallel to the language of the people and the public,” Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst told VOA Khmer. “It is apparent that the voice of nationalism is very strong, because it comes from the heart of the people, and it is the policy of the government.”

Unity among the different groups has meant Cambodia has been able to protest Thailand’s actions, she said.

Cambodians have been gripped by the “sovereignty issue,” said Long Monghay, a researcher for the Asian Human Righs Commission, especially because in recent history Cambodia has lost must of its land to both its western and eastern neighbors.

While the issue allows people to stand together, it can be dangerous in extremity, he said, pointing to the successful exploitation of similar sentiments by the Khmer Rouge as it rose to power in the 1970s.

“Under the Khmer Rouge regime, very strong nationalism was too much, and that was not good,” he said. “One can find ways to resolve [the issue] peacefully and avoid stirring up too much nationalism.”

Cambodia’s leaders have made sovereignty a more important issue than any other, dampening other issues and political conflicts by declaring a Thai “invasion.” Thai officials have denied crossing into Cambodian territory and have blamed the shooting on instigation from the Cambodian side.

Even the Sam Rainsy Party, whose leader is in exile to avoid a criminal sentence over criticism of Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, has issued statements echoing ruling government condemnation of Thailand.

Much of the national unity has solidified in recent weeks, following heavy border fighting with Thailand between Feb. 4 and Feb. 7, which killed five Cambodian soldiers and two civilians and drove thousands from their border homes.

“Generally, when our country faces danger from the outside, we always unite to protest against foreign invasion,” Sam Rainsy told VOA Khmer from France. “For internal affairs between Khmer and Khmer, we should leave these aside in an emergency.”

Kem Sokha, who heads the minority opposition Human Rights Party, also said party politics should be put aside “when Thailand invades Cambodia.”

“All must show national integrity in order not to let foreigners look down on us,” he said. “When we split, the foreigners looking down on us can easily control us.”

“Khmers united survive, while Khmers divided die,” Cheam Yiep, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker said, quoting a Cambodian maxim. “Don’t trust foreigners, don’t trust the sky, and don’t trust the stars.”