PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A dispute with neighboring Thailand over border land near an 11th century Hindu temple has sparked nationalist pride throughout Cambodia and strengthened the longtime prime minister's popularity ahead of parliamentary elections Sunday.
Thailand sent troops to the border after Thai anti-government demonstrators assembled near the Preah Vihear temple earlier this month. Cambodia responded by sending its own troops and its government says the dispute has triggered "an imminent state of war."
The temple has fueled nationalist sentiment in both countries on-and-off for decades, and the latest military confrontation between the two Southeast Asian neighbors has upstaged Sunday's election.
"The election is necessary but has become a secondary concern for me now," 27-year-old Sy Buntheng, a university student in the capital Phnom Penh, said ahead of the vote. "The encroachment by Thai troops on our land is the greatest national concern for me."
Hun Sen, 57, who has run Cambodia since 1985, is Asia's longest-serving leader and already was expected to win re-election before the dispute flared July 15. But passions over Preah Vihear temple and Hun Sen's firm stance against Thailand have galvanized undecided voters in his favor, analysts say.
"Now everybody is behind the government because it's the only institution that can deal with the Thai government. That means more votes for (Hun Sen)," said Kek Galabru, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist and election monitor.
More than 8 million of Cambodia's 14 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's election. Eleven parties are vying for seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with the winner forming a new government to run the country for the next five years.
Polls opened at 8 p.m. EDT and unofficial party results are expected a few hours after polling stations closed 4 a.m. EDT Sunday. Official results are expected later in the week.
Internationally, Hun Sen has faced criticism for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. But he maintains his tenure has ushered in peace and stability after the Khmer Rouge's genocidal reign from 1975-1979, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people.
Under his free-market policies, Cambodia's economy has been one of the fastest growing in Asia, expanding at 11 percent in each of the past three years.
Preah Vihear has been the scene of several conflicts along the often-turbulent border. The temple was held by the U.S.-backed government during the 1970-75 war and was one of the last places to fall to the Khmer Rouge.
Ousted by a Vietnamese invasion, the ultra-communists became guerrillas and occupied the temple until 1998. Two Belgian tourists who were apparently trying to visit the temple in 1994 were abducted by Khmer Rouge guerrillas and then killed.
Cambodian refugees fled in droves across the border to Thailand after the 1979 invasion to escape conflict in their homeland.
Keo Neang, a 46-year-old nurse who lives near the temple, said she and hundreds of other Cambodians were shoved down steep slopes by Thai troops near the ancient temple, which sits high on a cliff along Cambodia's northern border with Thailand.
Though Thailand denies the incident happened, she said she remembers her companions blown apart by land mines that littered the jungle below the magnificent sanctuary, while other Cambodian refugees were gunned down by Thai soldiers as they tried to escape back into Thailand.
"I heard cries for help from people who were injured. Some were begging for water as they were bleeding to death," said Keo Neang, tears streaming down her face.
The current controversy revolves around 1.8 square miles of land that have been in dispute since French colonialists withdrew from Cambodia in the 1950s.
The International Court of Justice awarded the temple site to Cambodia in 1962, but anger flared in Thailand last month after Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej backed Cambodia's successful bid for the temple to be listed as a U.N. World Heritage Site.
Thailand sent troops to the border July 15 after anti-government demonstrators criticized Samak's government for supporting Cambodia's application. The Thai protesters claim the temple's new status will undermine their country's claim to the 1.8 square miles around the temple.
Cambodian says some 4,000 troops from both countries are now massed in the area around Preah Vihear. Thailand says it has 400 troops in the area and that Cambodia has 1,700.
Negotiations between the two countries on the border dispute are scheduled to resume Monday. If talks fail, Cambodia says it will renew a call for the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue.