By Joel Brinkley

Across the Middle East and beyond, kings and dictators are quaking in their castles, afraid their people will throw them from power. All except one, that is.

In Cambodia, long-time dictator Hun Sen, like his fellow potentates around the world, watched the news and figured out his own strategy. He decided to give a speech and threaten his people.

"I would like to tell you that if you want to strike as in Tunisia," he warned, "I will close the door and beat the dog this time."

That was last month, and all has been quiet since. Don Jameson, a former State Department official who served in Phnom Penh, just returned from a long visit there and told me, "I judge that the chances of an uprising against the Hun Sen regime similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt are close to zero."

Next door in Thailand, meanwhile, thousands of anti-government protestors are in the streets right now, demanding early elections and more. But they aren't inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt or anyplace else. Dueling groups of angry protestors have been taking to the streets in Bangkok, demanding change, every few months since 2008. To all of those outraged mobs in the Middle East, Thailand's protesters offer a shrug and say: Welcome to the club.

This is a tale of two states. And as it happens, they are at war.

On the Thai-Cambodian border sits a small, crumbling 11th century Hindu temple called Preah Vihear. In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled that it belonged to Cambodia. The ancient Khmer empire built it, after all. But the justices offered no opinion on the empty land surrounding it. Then in 2008, Unesco declared Preah Vihear a World Heritage Site. That's when Thailand got angry.

For centuries, a favored Thai hobby has been kicking Cambodia around. Until a century ago, Thailand occupied the nation's western half. In 2008, Thailand assaulted the Preah Vihear area, asserting ownership of the land. Several soldiers from both sides died. Eventually the violence ebbed, but not before the leaders of both states learned an important lesson.

In Cambodia, the educated population (a tiny percentage of the total) generally hates their dictator, just as is the case in most authoritarian states. But when Thailand attacked in 2008, for once everyone in the nation, even Hun Sen's opponents, rallied around him in support of the fight against Cambodia's despised, ancient enemy -- the Siamese.

It's unclear who started the fighting under way now. Several soldiers and civilians have been killed. But politicians on both sides are reaping significant benefits.

Hun Sen once sued Michael Hayes, who was founding editor of the Phnom Penh Post, an English-language newspaper. The two certainly aren't friends. But now, Hayes writes: "I am as angry as all Cambodians are at what we perceive as a Thai-initiated conflict." He added, "In the 20 years I have been in Cambodia, the Preah Vihear issue is without question the only one I've seen that has united the entire nation."

The timing is near-perfect. Cambodia holds local elections next year and national elections in 2013. The very same holds true in Thailand. In fact, leaders on both sides appear to be encouraging the conflict.

In part because of the street protests, Thailand just announced new elections by June. Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the opposition group representing the business and political establishment, gave a fiery pre-election speech in which he called the current president weak-kneed and advocated a broad invasion of western Cambodia.

Cambodia is weak, and "to die for a great cause, to protect the land, is worth it," he declared, bringing cheers from the crowd.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen vows to remain in office until he is 90. He's 58 now, and already no Asian leader has served as long -- 26 years. Like Egypt, Cambodia holds faux elections, but Hun Sen recently declared: "I don't just want to weaken the opposition, but to make it die."

In Thailand, street protests, a coup and court cases have brought frequent changes in leadership over the last five years. In fact, whoever holds office now lives under the constant threat of massive street protests so that his grip on power remains ever-tenuous. But now Thai and Cambodian leaders, for their own political benefit, are ensuring that the Preah Vihear conflict, more than anything else, continues to animate events in both countries.

"The only thing that excites Cambodians right now," Jameson said, "is the dispute with Thailand over Preah Vihear."


(Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.)


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