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Cambodians vote amid Thai temple stand-off

world Updated: Jul 27, 2008 08:08 IST
Ed Cropley
Ed Cropley
Reuters
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Cambodians went to the polls on Sunday in an election overshadowed by a row with neighbouring Thailand over a 900-year-old temple that has inflamed nationalist passions and led to troop build-ups on the border.

Both the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) jumped on the dispute surrounding the Preah Vihear ruins, which sit on a jungle-clad escarpment separating the two southeast Asian countries.

However, the nationalist fervour is unlikely to affect the outcome of a vote almost certain to hand another five years in power to Hun Sen, a one-eyed, 57-year-old ex-Khmer Rouge guerrilla and prime minister for the past 23 years.

"The result is not in doubt," said Kek Galabru, head of Phnom Penh-based human rights group LICADHO, adding that the formerly communist but now firmly free-market CPP would probably win an outright majority in the 123-seat parliament.

As well as Hun Sen's argument that he has brought peace and stability after decades of Cold War upheaval and the ravages of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, the CPP has presided over an economy that has enjoyed five years of near double-digit growth.

Another indicator of the improving lot of the country's 14 million people is a fall in the level of political violence, although human rights groups say four CPP and two SRP activists -- including one opposition journalist -- were murdered in the month before polling.

Temple talks

The CPP is so confident of victory it has scheduled talks over Preah Vihear with Thailand's foreign minister in the tourist town of Siem Reap, home to Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple complex, on Monday.

The meeting is not expected to make major headway in resolving the dispute, which is mainly over 1.8 square miles (4.6 square km) of scrubland near the temple.

The ruins themselves are claimed by both countries but were awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice, a ruling that has rankled in Thailand ever since.

Analysts say Thai domestic politics are mainly to blame for the row, which flared up after Cambodia's successful bid to have the ruins listed as a World Heritage site.

Bangkok's initial support for the heritage listing was seized on by anti-government groups in their long-running attempt to unseat the Thai government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. His foreign minister was forced to resign over the issue.

There have been no major incidents so far, but both sides have sent troops and artillery to dig in near the temple and nearby Thai border villages are braced for conflict.

(Additional reporting by Ek Madra in Phnom Penh and Nopporn Wong-Anan in Bangkok; Editing by Alan Raybould)