2003 Phnom Penh riots
In January 2003, a Cambodian newspaper article falsely alleged that a Thai actress claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. Other Cambodian print and radio media picked up the report and furthered the nationalistic sentiment which resulted in riots in Phnom Penh on January 29 where the Thai Embassy was burned and commercial properties of Thai businesses were vandalized. The riots reflect the fluid historical relationship between Thailand and Cambodia, as well as the economic, cultural and political factors involving the two countries.
Historically, the relationship between Siam (modern Thailand) and Cambodia was extremely fluid, reflecting the region’s division into city states rather than nation states. These city states were bound together into empires by more or less strong political, military and tributary ties. In the 14th century, the centre of Thai power passed from Sukhothai to the more southerly Ayutthaya, in territory which had formed part of the Khmer empire. The threat posed by Ayutthaya to Angkor increased as its power grew, and in the 15th century Angkor itself was sacked.
The ensuing centuries saw numerous further incursions by the Siamese. For much of the 19th century, northern Cambodia, including Angkor, was ruled by Siam. The degree of independence enjoyed by Cambodia fluctuated according to the relative fortunes of Siam, Cambodia and the French colonists.
In 1907, Siam ceded northern Cambodia to France. In the 1930s, this loss became the basis of the nationalist government’s claim that the area was a “lost territory” which rightfully belonged to Thailand. In 1941, following a war with Vichy France, Thailand briefly regained the territories ceded to France in 1907. This claim was not abandoned until the 1950s.
Thailand’s rapid economic progress during the 1980s and 1990s made its economy one of the strongest in south-east Asia. Conversely, the Khmer Rouge government and the subsequent civil war kept Cambodia economically weak. As a result, Thai businesses dominate part of the Cambodian economy, fuelling resentment.
Compared to Cambodia, Thailand has a far greater population and is more open to western influences. These factors have given Thailand a substantial cultural influence on Cambodian music and television. This is coupled with a perception on the part of many Cambodians that Thais are arrogant and racist towards their neighbors.
Cause of the riots
The January 2003 riots were prompted by an article in the Cambodian Rasmei Angkor (Light of Angkor) newspaper on January 18. The article alleged that a Thai actress, Suvanant Kongying, had said that Cambodia had stolen Angkor, and that she would not appear in Cambodia until it was returned to Thailand. The newspaper’s editor gave the source for the story as a group of Khmer nationalists who said they had seen the actress on television. No evidence to support the newspaper’s claim has ever emerged, and it seems that the report was either fabricated or arose from a misunderstanding of what Suvanan’s character had said. It has also been suggested that the report was an attempt by a rival firm to discredit the actress, who was inter alia the “face” of a cosmetics company.
The report was picked up by Khmer radio and print media, and copies of the Rasmei Angkor article were distributed in schools. On January 27, the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen repeated the allegations, and said that Suvanant was “not worth a few blades of grass near the temple”. On January 28, the Cambodian government then banned all Thai television programmes in the country.
On January 29, rioters attacked the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, destroying the building. Mobs also attacked the premises of Thai-owned businesses, including Thai Airways International and Shin Corp, owned by the family of then Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. A photograph of a Cambodian man holding a burning portrait of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej enraged many Thai people.
The Thai government sent military aircraft to Cambodia to evacuate Thai nationals, while Thais demonstrated outside the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok.
Responsibility for the riots was disputed: Hun Sen attributed the government’s failure to prevent the attacks to “incompetence”, and said that the riots were stirred up by “extremists”. The chairman of the National Assembly, Prince Norodom Ranariddh claimed that opposition leader Sam Rainsy had directed the attacks. Rainsy said that he had attempted to prevent the violence.
The Thai government closed the country’s border with Cambodia following the riots, but only to Thai and Cambodian nationals. At no point was the border ever closed to foreigners or Western tourists. The border was re-opened on 21 March 2003, following the Cambodian government’s payment of $6 million compensation for the destruction of the Thai embassy. In a 2006 rally against Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, several influential Thai diplomats, including former ambassador to the UN Asda Jayanama and former ambassador to Vietnam Supapong Jayanama, alleged that only half of the compensation was actually paid. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied this accusation. The Cambodian government also agreed to compensate individual Thai businesses for the losses which they had suffered, to be negotiated separately.
Shortly after the riots, a wave of arrests - more than 150 persons - was criticized by human rights groups, highlighting irregularities in the procedures and denial by the authorities to monitor their detention conditions. The owner of Beehive Radio, Mom Sonando, and Chan Sivutha, Editor-in-Chief of Reaksmei Angkor, were both arrested without warrants, charged with incitement to commit a crime, incitement to discrimination and announcement of false information. They were later on released on bail and no trial was ever made.