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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Border fighting spurs memories of anti-Thai violence five years ago

Border fighting spurs memories of anti-Thai violence five years ago

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Thai nationals catch the first planes they can out of Cambodia as embassy closes and Thai foreign minister says his government is preparing an evacuation plan if the situation deteriorates

Photo by: AFP

Thai soldiers set up heavy artillery on the Thai-Cambodian border Wednesday, shortly before clashes broke out between the two sides. The violence has jolted Phnom Penh’s Thai community, forcing many to flee the country for fear of a repeat of the 2003 anti-Thai riots.

BUILDING border tensions between Cambodia and Thailand that finally exploded into fighting Wednesday have sparked fears of a repeat of anti-Thai violence five years ago, causing Thai citizens to again flee the country.

An employee at the La Parranda Hotel in downtown Phnom Penh, where groups of Thais gathered Wednesday after the outbreak of clashes near Preah Vihear, said Thais had been leaving in droves since Tuesday.

"There's no special air transport for them. They just have been booking flights and leaving," the employee said.

"We are helping them to arrange and book tickets to go back," the employee added.

"Normally, I recognise many Thai guests who come here for breakfast and lunch, and now there is no one."

One man standing in the hotel lobby who did not want to be named said he was part of a group of 20 Thai nationals waiting for flights out of Cambodia for fear that the fighting on the border would ignite anti-Thai sentiments in Phnom Penh.

"We all work together, so we are going back to Thailand together," he told the Post late Wednesday.

You Vuthy, a security guard at the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, said the embassy was closed midafternoon and nonessential staff were sent home.

"There are only about 10 high-ranking officials left inside," he said. Outside, Cambodian riot police had been deployed against possible trouble.

We all work together, so we ARe going back to Thailand together.

"We think the Cambodian government will protect the embassy. It doesn't want  a repeat of the anti-Thai riots," You Vuthy said.
Thailand's foreign minister said Wednesday he was prepared to evacuate Thai citizens in Cambodia if warranted, in light of renewed fighting on their disputed common border.

"We have prepared an evacuation plan but we have to see how serious the situation is before the plan is executed," Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat said.

Thai air force Group Captain Montol Suchookorn told AFP that transport planes were being prepared in case they were needed to evacuate Thai nationals from Cambodia.

Thai nationals were last evacuated from Cambodia in January 2003, when Cambodian mobs went on rampages, burning the Thai embassy and destroying Thai-owned businesses around the capital, fueled by false rumours that a Thai pop starlet had claimed that Angkor Wat - one of the most important symbols in Cambodian society - belonged to Thailand.

No one was killed, but the incident saw Cambodia's relations with its western neighbour plummet to their lowest levels in recent memory.

A row over another temple has created the latest unrest between the two countries.

The military standoff at Preah Vihear began in July, after the 11th-century temple was designated a Unesco World Heritage site, enraging Thai nationalists who claimed the ruins belong to Thailand and accused Bangkok of ceding land to Cambodia.

Thailand's political opposition picked up on this anger in its push to drive out the government of then-prime minister Samak Sundaravej, who was forced to step down earlier this year, in part over the Preah Vihear dispute.

The ensuing military buildup on the border reverberated throughout the Thai community in Phnom Penh earlier this year, with employees at several Thai-owned businesses saying their managers had gone back to Thailand.

But the eruption of fighting Wednesday was the breaking point for many, both Thais and Cambodians.

Cambodian migrant workers were reportedly fleeing back to their homeland, according to military officials on the border, while those inside the Kingdom's borders were also leaving their home villages near the border for fear of fighting.

"I came to Siem Reap Tuesday to escape because I felt scared," said Ean Lieng, who lives in the border town of O'Smach.

"Many other people are leaving as well. The people there are very scared," he told the Post.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUT SOPHAK CHAKRYA, SAM RITH AND AFP

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