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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Deplorable incident' ruins Thai-Khmer relations

'Deplorable incident' ruins Thai-Khmer relations

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The rioting of January 29 that saw the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh sacked and burned

- with the ambassador scaling a fence at the back of the embassy and fleeing by boat

- and more than a dozen businesses trashed, has sent relations between the two countries

to a new low.

Looters pick through whatís left of the lobby of the Royal Phnom Penh hotel.

In retaliation the Thais expelled the Cambodian ambassador "for his own personal

safety", and downgraded the embassy's status to that of charge d'affaires. Bangkok

has also suspended all technical and economic cooperation.

The government warned that those measures would remain in place until Phnom Penh

explained what had happened, fully compensated the Thai government and Thai businesses

for the damage suffered, and brought the guilty parties to justice.

Those demands were contained in a January 30 statement from the Thai Foreign Ministry.

The Thai government protested the "deplorable incidents" that had endangered

its diplomatic staff, and condemned the Cambodian government "in the strongest

terms" for its failure to protect the embassy and its staff.

But the strongest criticism was directed at senior Cambodian government officials.

The Thai statement noted that:

"Most objectionable was the fact that these life-threatening acts and wanton

destruction were allowed to occur and continue despite repeated and persistent direct

requests for protection from the Thai Ambassador to the highest levels of the Royal

Cambodian Government, who either professed helplessness or merely indicated seeming

indifference at the acute plight of our diplomatic mission."

The statement followed a phone interview to a Thai TV station by the Thai ambassador,

Chatchawed Chartsuwan. The Bangkok Post reported the ambassador's conviction that

the protesters were not all students, and that the protest was organized, not spontaneous.

He also accused the Cambodian authorities of being slow to help.

"I called for help from the defense minister last night [January 28], but help

came too late. They should not have any excuse. In the afternoon [of January 29]

I called everyone in the foreign ministry, the police, the defense ministry, but

they did not turn up soon enough," Chatchawed reportedly said.

General Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior (MoI), said diplomatic

relations with Thailand and years of progress in the international community, were

obliterated overnight.

"It completely destroyed the face of Cambodia in the international arena,"

said Sopheak. "Those people that do this violence, they don't know what they

destroy.... By doing so, they don't love their nation, they don't love their country."

Following the destruction of the Thai Embassy and other Thai interests in Phnom Penh,

senior government officials including Chief of Police Hok Lundy and MoI Minister

Sar Kheng met on Wednesday night to try and bring the situation under control.

Minister of Defense Tea Banh conceded rioting had damaged bilateral relations.

"Thailand has already cut its relationship," he said. "The only option

is for us to take full responsibility, and we will continue to solve the problem."

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith blamed the government's inexperience for its

poor handling of the riots.

"This is the first time we have had this kind of thing happening. We did not

expect this would happen," he said.

Asked whether the government could afford to compensate fully for the damage to the

embassy and Thai businesses, Kanharith replied: "We do have [the money] - we

have to do it. It's an obligation."

A foreign embassy official based in Bangkok spoke of the feeling there that the events

were orchestrated. He said the Thai government was "very, very angry".

"We have heard there was one [Thai] dead. If that is true, I think that will

damage the relationship even more," he told the Post on condition of anonymity.

"Thaksin is very hot-blooded and I hope his advisors can calm him down."

Although the Thais found it easy to forget such things, he said, "on the other

hand they are very, very nationalistic and proud". Insults to the Thai Royal

Family, he noted, caused great resentment.

"The Cambodians have to be very careful with what they do," he concluded.

The MoI said law enforcement officers were deployed late on Thursday with trucks,

motorcycles and armored personnel vehicles to ensure that violence did not flare

up again.

"We have mobilized all of our reserve forces," said Sopheak. "This

is under control. We have to make the looters stop."

He said about 1,000 military and law enforcement personnel were on patrol in the

city ready to respond to any disturbance. He vowed never to let it happen again.

But relations between the two countries deteriorated throughout the day. Major protests

erupted outside the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, and checkpoints on the Thai-Cambodian

border were closed for business. Military transport airplanes arrived Thursday morning

at Pochentong Airport to evacuate embassy staff.

Cambodian officials were apologetic.

"We are ready now to protect them," said Sopheak. "We don't have any

plans to ask them to leave, but if they want to leave we will provide them with every

available effort to protect them on the way to the airport."

"We are sorry for this incident," he said.

Besides a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday morning, which was repeated

throughout the day on national TV, most government officials were hunkered down in

their offices and declined to speak.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment on the previous night's violence.

Senior officials repeatedly said they were in meetings at the Council of Ministers;

the ministry's press office refused to meet reporters.

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