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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - All quiet on the western front

All quiet on the western front

The scene outside the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh the day after it was sacked on January 29.

The anti-Thai riots - seven months on

Even the country's most nimble-minded fortuneteller would have been hard pressed to predict that demonstrations about alleged comments by a Thai actress that her country should own Angkor Wat could morph into the anti-Thai rampage of January 29.

But given the tension between the two countries immediately after the violence, it is perhaps more surprising that little more than a half year later there seems to be very little tension between Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

For those who cannot quite recall the events, the Thai ambassador, Chatchawed Chartsuwan, fled over his embassy wall as hundreds of youths burned and looted his embassy and official residence.

Chartsuwan told the media the following day he was convinced that the riots-in which more than a dozen Thai-affiliated businesses were also damaged or destroyed-were organized, not spontaneous. He accused the Cambodian authorities of being slow to help.

At a stroke, Cambodia's image went from burnished-as the successful host of the November 2002 ASEAN summit-to tarnished. An angry Thai government severed diplomatic relations, and demanded full compensation and an explanation for the events and prosecution of wrongdoers.

Prime Minister Hun Sen was criticized for exploiting anti-Thai sentiment, because in a speech three days before the riots he described Thai actress Suwanan Kongying, who was accused of making the comments, as not worth a blade of grass at Angkor Wat.

For his part, Prime Minister Hun Sen blamed "extremists". The Cambodian government vowed to try those responsible for the events when it officially accepted Thai demands to bring "justice to the perpetrators and those responsible for the heinous acts".

The government formed four commissions to deal with the aftermath of the riots. One to manage compensation for the Thai Embassy, another to deal with normalizing ties between the two countries, the third to negotiate compensation for businesses, and the last to investigate the events.

Relations between the two countries normalized rapidly in April even though Cambodia had not met any of the Thai demands. Chatchawed returned to his post nearly three months after fleeing for his life and resolved to "let bygones be bygones". Now it seems that there are few repercussions from the rampage, which caused up to $54 million in damage.

That doesn't surprise one Phnom Penh diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He says the incident is "no big deal now", because leaders in both countries wanted to solve the problem as quickly as possible. He adds that the Thai government knew that even if the demonstrations were orchestrated, it was never intended that they reach that level of destruction. That, he concludes, made it easier to forgive.

"The Cambodian government was taken aback. Everyone recognized it as something that shouldn't have happened," he says. "Thailand also is interested very much in the region. At that time there were other problems such as terrorism. This was just a spat."

He says neighboring countries pointed out in private talks that a standoff would harm both nations and the whole region, and "both prime ministers told themselves, 'Wait a minute: this is not doing anybody any good'."

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who at one point took shelter in the United States Embassy when it seemed the government was trying to blame him for the riots, claims the Thai government has been able to use the riots to its advantage, gaining concessions on border, fisheries and oil exploration issues.

"Thailand does not lose anything," Rainsy says. "It will receive compensation, and even though the Thai companies have suffered from some damage, the benefits Thailand has derived from Cambodia have been much bigger."

And he claims that even the re-opening of the border crossing at Preah Vihear temple-which was agreed at the joint cabinet meeting in Siem Reap on May 28 and which appeared to be a concession to Cambodia-in fact benefits Thailand as it will allow more trade.

When the Post asked Thailand's Ambassador Chartsuwan for an interview in mid-August, he said he had no time and did not want to upset the process of negotiations for the rest of the estimated $54 million in damages.

The status of those negotiations is still unclear: a senior Cambodian official privy to negotiations for payments to damaged businesses told the Post before the election that besides the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, two other repayment agreements had been signed with Thai businesses. He said that left 13 more to be negotiated.

One of the few people who is keen to talk is law student Ken Sara. The member of the Democratic Front of Khmer Students and Intellectuals (DFKSI) has been in jail for more than six months, charged with inciting the riots. His lawyer says Sara and his 21 co-accused will appear in court on September 2.

Sara says that those who set fire to the Thai Embassy were not members of DFKSI. He denies playing any role in the violence, saying he simply went to watch the demonstrations and asked rioters not to set fire to the embassy.

"Why has the government put the blame on me?" he asks in Prey Sar prison. "I think that only the powerful could have encouraged the rioting."

Beehive FM owner Mam Sonando was also arrested for incitement shortly after the anti-Thai riots, along with the editor of Rasmei Angkor newspaper, En Chan Sivatha. It was his paper that published the bogus story about the comments the Thai actress was said to have made. Both were released pending trial after a public outcry.

"I don't know when I'll be in court," says Sonando. "It's very regrettable, because in principle the government always flexes its muscles to end demonstrations. After the demonstrations that made a big mess that caused $54 million, why are no police in prison?"

Sonando says he was released from prison because NGOs and other countries put pressure on the government. He adds that the evidence will make it impossible to convict him of incitement.

"On the night of the 29th at around 8:43, we did a phone-in show and one person called in to say there were [unconfirmed] problems at the border because Thais bound Cambodians' arms behind their backs and forced them to drink fish sauce," Sonando says. "The Thai Embassy had already been on fire for two or two and a half hours but they put me in prison because of what that person said."

A confidential US State Department assessment of the Cambodian government's actions during the anti-Thai riots, seems to back up Sonando's assertion.

"[T]he radio station did not begin its call-in program until about 8:30 p.m., long after the Thai Embassy was in flames," stated the report, which was delivered to US Congress in April.

It went on to accuse Phnom Penh of irresponsibility and incompetence, and questioned whether the government was behind the violence. That was roundly denied in May by government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, who said the report was improperly researched as "a lot of people want to politicize this".

He maintained that the rumor that Cambodian diplomats had been killed in Bangkok was broadcast on the radio and caused the violence in Phnom Penh. Kanharith added he would like to have the radio station owners brought to justice for inciting the riots, but "if you want to arrest more, there will be an outcry".

Yet the State Department report concluded that the Cambodian government authorities were "irresponsible with nationalist rhetoric and incompetent in handling the unfolding crisis, and bear responsibility for having failed to take decisive action to protect Thai diplomatic premises and commercial property once peaceful demonstrations turned violent".

Kanharith replied that, "I think that the State Department guys should do their homework."

The US report suggested the slow police response was a result of not receiving authorization from Hun Sen or his closest aides. The question of whether the violence was deliberate was based on police inaction and the assertion that the Pagoda Boys, a pro-Hun Sen youth group, played a leadership role that caused much of the damage.

"[I]n the late afternoon, according to eyewitnesses, the demonstration was taken over by the 'Pagoda Boys', ostensibly an organization of male students in their twenties from the provinces, that the municipality authorities had previously used to break up anti-government demonstrations," it stated.

"[T]he active participation by the Pagoda Boys gang in this demonstration, and their apparent leadership role, fueled the violence. At no time did policemen at the embassy demonstrate the will to defuse the demonstration."

For some months after the anti-Thai riots, the Pagoda Boys were in the national spotlight. But today the group is keeping a lower profile. Pagoda Boys president Seng Sovannara refused to answer questions for this article, saying he was too busy studying.

As for the public explanation of why rioters had free rein in Phnom Penh, General Neth Savoeun, chief of the investigation commission to root out the cause of the riots, says investigators are still pursuing leads. After relations were normalized in April, Cambodian and Thai officials planned to team up for a joint inquiry into the matter.

"We cannot identify who the extremists are yet. The investigation was delayed because we were busy with the election," says Savoeun. "Now we are trying to investigate. We don't know when it will finish. We still need to collect more information."

And so, seven months on, there is still no government explanation about what happened, and little willingness by either side to discuss the issue. The Thai Embassy on Norodom Boulevard is being refurbished, and Thai-owned businesses have either been demolished or are back in business. And in terms of public discussions, it is clear that Thailand considers the case closed.

"I think the incident is finished and we don't want to talk about it anymore," Ambassador Chartsuwan told the Post on August 22.



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