Cambodia/Thailand: Reacting to Rumors

On Jan. 18, Rasmei Angkor, a small Cambodian newspaper, published a front-page article that sent shock waves through the region. Picking up on a rumor that 24-year-old Thai soap opera star Suvanant Kongying (nicknamed Phkay Proek) had claimed Cambodia’s national treasure, the breathtaking 900-year-old temple of Angkor Wat, was rightfully Thailand’s, the paper reported: “Phkay Proek said that if any Cambodian official or director invited her to perform in Cambodia, she would do so only if they first agreed to give Angkor Wat to Thailand....Phkay Proek said that she hated Cambodians like dogs.”

While recognizing that Kongying’s statement might have been misinterpreted, the article continued: “If this Thai actress said that she hates Cambodians like dogs, we would like to tell her that Cambodians throughout the country hate Thais like leeches that suck other nations’ blood....If it is true, Kongying must lower her head to the ground and salute by placing palm to palm in order to apologize to Cambodians, who are a gentle and polite race and have never encroached on other countries’ land. It is insulting enough for Cambodians to hear Thais wickedly saying to their children, ‘You must not be born a Khmer in your next life’ and so on.”

Kongying, reportedly shocked by the story, denied ever making such comments—a denial that now appears, by all accounts, to be true. But a Cambodian population long convinced that their richer and more powerful Thai neighbors looked down on them was not open to any such explanations.

Around 5 p.m. on Jan. 29, the situation reached a boiling point. At that time, a group of Cambodians demonstrating outside the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh received news—again false—that 20 of their compatriots had been killed in the Thai capital. “Furious violence” ensued, according to Udom Katte Khmer (Jan. 30)—protesters broke through the embassy fence, entered the building, destroyed documents inside, and set fire to the structure and to nearby cars. The Thai ambassador was forced to flee; Reaksmei Kampuchea (Feb. 1) quoted him as saying, “I had to jump over the fence of the embassy in order to escape from the crowds of Cambodians and the really bad situation.” He later had to leave the area by boat.

Thais reacted with horror. As the situation spiraled out of control, Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, told Hun Sen, his Cambodian counterpart, that Thai commandos would be sent in if the situation were not brought under control within 90 minutes. Though Cambodian police ultimately arrived on the scene, making arrests and firing shots in the air to disperse the crowd, this official response came too late. Before the night was over, the angry Cambodian crowd had destroyed several Thai-owned businesses, including Cambodia Shinawatra, the telecommunications company of the Thai prime minister, and the well-known Royal Phnom Penh Hotel.

The next day,  Thailand sent military planes into Cambodia to evacuate its embassy staff and several hundred Thai civilians. Thai Airways suspended flights to Cambodia. And, as Reaksmei Kampuchea (Feb. 5) explained, “Thai Prime Minister Thaksin decided to reduce diplomatic relations with Cambodia to the level of consul-general, return Cambodian workers from Thailand to Cambodia, prohibit Cambodian nationals from entering Thailand, close Cambodian-Thai border crossings, and stop economic cooperation. The decision affects more than 50,000 Cambodians who work in Thailand. Moreover, it affects Thai trade and people.” Thailand also reportedly put its border forces on alert and deployed naval vessels.

By mid-February, tensions had lessened considerably. Borders were reopened. The Cambodian government vowed to pay Thailand for the damage caused and to protect Thai nationals who returned. Thailand sent a chargé d’affaires to re-establish a diplomatic presence in Cambodia. But the causes and effects of the crisis were still being debated.

Many in the Thai media have tried to determine the underlying reasons for the violence. Khao Sod (Feb. 5) speculated: “The root cause was due to the long-held dislike of  Thailand’s role in Cambodia’s history. In the past, U.S. planes took off from Thai air bases and bombed Cambodia to smithereens. That’s why the Cambodian people have never remembered that Thailand helped to build their roads and rehabilitate their war-torn economy in the past two decades.”

Kom Chad Leuk speculated (Feb. 5) that “the deep resentment of young Cambodians, who were born after the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1978, was the main cause. They have not received any benefit from peace dividends in the past 10 years. While they are proud of their country’s newfound stability, they are very bitter with the lack of governance and corruption problems in their country. Any news, especially that related to neighboring countries, can trigger outrage. The burning of the Thai Embassy was the outcome of this madness.”

One Cambodian paper pointed to Thailand’s arrogance as a cause of the crisis. “According to Cambodian history, Cambodians, who are an older race in Southeast Asia, had a prosperous culture and civilization. But near-neighbor Thailand seems not to understand this,” said Kampuchea Thmey (Feb. 16).

But most Cambodian papers were less concerned with the cause of the violence than with its effects. Worried that Thai businesses would not reopen, Kampuchea Thmey noted (Feb. 4), “Most investors come from Thailand. The garment sector alone provided jobs for more than 200,000 workers. But now, Cambodian unemployment will increase more and more.” Koh Santepheap pointed out (Feb. 6), “If the Thai investors return, then hundreds of Cambodians who are currently unemployed because of Thai business closures will feel relieved. These Cambodians are worried that they may not be able to get their January salaries....Who will pay Cambodians if  Thai investors leave the country?”

A more astute and forward-looking analysis was provided by Thailand’s Mathichon Daily (Feb. 4), which laid the blame squarely on both countries. “The biggest mistake of the Thai-Cambodian misunderstanding is the fanning of nationalism on both sides,” it charged. The paper then offered a suggestion: “Thailand should learn from this incident and urge both the government and private sectors to find ways to ameliorate the feelings of Cambodians.”