Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia appear to be easing 10 days after anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh destroyed the Thai Embassy and damaged several Thai-owned businesses on Jan. 29. According to the Guardian, “The seeds of the crisis were sown on January 18 when a small Cambodian newspaper, Rasmei Angkor (Light of Angkor), reported that a Thai soap opera actor, Suwanan Kongying, had said she would not perform again in Cambodia until the famed Angkor Wat temple complex—the national symbol depicted on Cambodia’s flag—was returned to Thailand.” Kongying denies that she said any such thing, and Rasmei Angkor’s editor later admitted that he made no attempt to verify the story before it went to press. The anecdote appeared in several other papers, inflaming widespread resentment and eventually leading to the unrest. The Guardian reported that Cambodia’s only independent radio station was closed down and its owner arrested and charged with inciting the rioting; no government-controlled media that repeated the rumor has so far been punished.
Immediately following the disturbance, Thailand withdrew its ambassador from Phnom Penh, cut off economic aid, sealed the border, and deported 4,000 Cambodian illegal laborers and border traders. Relations improved when the Phnom Penh regime promised to compensate Thailand for its economic losses, though Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra wondered where its impoverished neighbor, which relies heavily on foreign aid, would find the more than $40 million required to repair the damage. The Bangkok Post reported that Shinawatra promised to reopen the border this weekend on “humanitarian grounds,” since Cambodians living near the border rely on cross-border trade to supply basic necessities.
According to the Khaleej Times of Dubai, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen claims the riots were “premeditated by a small group of extremists in a bid to destabilize the country.” Meanwhile, “Opposition leaders accuse Hun Sen of orchestrating the riots to divert public attention from domestic problems ahead of elections scheduled for July.” The Bangkok Post quoted a “leading Thai military officer” dismissing the possibility that anyone other than the government could be responsible for causing the disturbance. “Without [Hun Sen’s] consent how could such a thing happen in Cambodia, where he has nearly absolute power and full control of the military?” The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, “[T]he extent of the violence—and the consequent severe loss of face for Cambodia—could result in an electoral backlash against [Hun Sen’s] ruling Cambodian People’s Party.”
An editorial from the Thai daily Khom Chad Luek reprinted in the Bangkok Post advised Thai entrepreneurs doing business in Cambodia that they “should not demand too much from their host country. … Thailand’s economic and cultural dominance has caused resentment among certain groups of Cambodians for a long time.” Now it would be prudent “to try to create goodwill, and to compromise on the issue of compensation.” Matichon, another Thai paper, declared, “”We must accept the fact that Cambodian people are taught to believe that Thailand is the enemy of their country—just like the way Thai people are taught to look at Burma as their enemy. … Cambodians must be made to feel that we are their friends, not a Big Brother who seeks to exploit their resources or conquer them.”