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Rumor of Thai Actress' Words Salted a Wound

When Cambodian mobs attacked symbols of their nation's more powerful neighbor, they were also acting out of economic resentment.

February 03, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Some call her Venus, after a character she played in a popular television series. Others call her the Thai Julia Roberts. Either way, it wasn't in the script last week when crowds here went wild over comments attributed to the 24-year-old actress.

A false newspaper report that Thai soap opera star Suvanant Kongying had insulted the Cambodian people sparked riots that led to the destruction and looting of the Thai Embassy here as well as dozens of Thai-owned businesses, hotels and factories.

The Thai ambassador escaped his burning embassy by climbing over the back wall and fleeing in a boat. One of the ruined buildings was the headquarters of a cellular phone company owned by the family of Thailand's prime minister.

For Cambodia, which is struggling to rebuild after decades of war, the riots have been an international embarrassment. The Cambodian government apologized to Thailand, and in a public display over the weekend, police hauled dozens of accused looters from the courthouse to jail.

Among those arrested was In Chan Watha, publisher and editor of Rasmei Angkor, the small newspaper that printed the damaging article. On Saturday, he was ordered to stand trial on charges of publishing false information and inciting violence. He faces as much as a year in jail.

"We didn't think the issue was going to become so big," lamented a Rasmei Angkor editor who declined to give his name. "We just published the article so people would know the rumors."

Kongying has been a huge star in Cambodia, where her television shows were widely broadcast. But for weeks, rumors had circulated that she had claimed that the ancient temple of Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand.

The 800-year-old temple is Cambodia's greatest national treasure, and its image adorns the Cambodian flag. It was once the center of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia.

On Jan. 18, the Rasmei Angkor printed a front-page article calling on the government to investigate reports of Kongying's comments. It quoted her as supposedly saying in a television interview: "I hate Cambodians because Cambodians stole my Angkor Wat. If I am reincarnated, I would rather be a dog than a Cambodian."

Soon after, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gave legitimacy to the report, saying that the actress "isn't even worth a blade of grass at Angkor Wat."

Kongying has repeatedly denied making any negative remarks about Cambodia. No tape or transcript of the purported interview has ever turned up.

Nevertheless, the insult was too much for many Cambodians, who typically don't question what they read in newspapers.

Squeezed between its two bigger, more powerful neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, the country suffers from a national inferiority complex.

Cambodia has not recovered economically or psychically from the carnage of the Khmer Rouge, which killed more than 1 million people during the late 1970s, including most of the country's intellectuals.

Today, Thais have filled many gaps in the country's economy, flooding Cambodia with inexpensive household products and Thai culture, including television shows.

With a history of antagonism and border conflicts between the two countries, many Cambodians believe that Thais look down on them.

On Wednesday afternoon, a peaceful demonstration outside the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, the capital, turned ugly when word spread through the crowd that 20 Cambodians had been killed in Bangkok, the Thai capital. The report was false, but the protesters didn't stop to check.

Hundreds of demonstrators broke into the embassy compound and began smashing windows, looting the building and setting rooms on fire. Cambodian police guarding the embassy did nothing to stop them.

From there, the mob traveled around the city, selectively targeting Thai-owned businesses. Among those looted and destroyed were factories, hotels, telecommunications offices, restaurants, homes and the sprawling Royal Phnom Penh Hotel. At some buildings, the rioters brought furnishings outside and set them on fire.

At the headquarters of the Shinawatra cellular phone company, owned by the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the mob rampaged through the four-story building, smashing furniture and throwing computers from windows.

About 10 employees ran to the top floor and escaped from the mob by leaping across a gap of more than three feet to the building next door, said Poun Phoun, the company's Cambodian general manager.

"The rioters just wanted to destroy all the property to show the Thais what Cambodians are," he explained as he sat outside the ruined building. "Usually, Thai people look down on Cambodians."

Some police officers were sympathetic to the nationalist aims of the protesters and took no action when violence broke out. Officials said the police did not anticipate the demonstrators' anger and were overwhelmed by their numbers.

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