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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mobs go berserk in anti-Thai frenzy Thai embassy torched; businesses gutted

Mobs go berserk in anti-Thai frenzy Thai embassy torched; businesses gutted

PHNOM PENH exploded in a fiery outburst of anti-Thai demonstrations on Wednesday

night, January 29, that left Thai diplomatic and commercial interests ablaze and

official Cambodian-Thai relations in deep peril.

Riot police armed with AK-47s and batons outside the embassy.

Protesters broke into the Thai embassy and set it on fire, nearly destroying the

entire complex. The Royal Phnom Penh Hotel was gutted by fire and looted; Shinawatra

and Samart offices were ransacked; the Juliana Hotel was partially trashed; and many

other businesses were attacked.

Police and firemen stood by outside while the embassy premises were breached and

torched, saying they were powerless to stop it.

In the eerie light of the burning embassy, more than 100 protesters - many screaming

Chaiyo Kampuchea - ran amok inside the embassy compound for more than two hours.

They smashed windows, ripped up trees and shrubs, pounded cars with metal bars, and

destroyed anything they could get their hands on before riot police finally intervened

to expel them.

When asked, several demonstrators said Thais "looked down" on Cambodians

so they felt the need to respond. Unsubstantiated rumors were circulating among the

crowd that the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok had been attacked and Cambodians killed.

"They killed more than 20 [Cambodians] at 2:30 [today]," said Vichit, a

student demonstrator, "and they poured gasoline on Cambodian bodies, so we want

to kill them back".

The morning after: a torched car in the grounds of the embassy.

He said he had heard the story on a Cambodian radio station and read it on the internet.

An official at radio station FM99, who asked not to be named, said the station had

broadcast the rumor after hearing it from protesters.

The story turned out to be completely false.

A painting of the Thai Queen - a sacred item to all Thais - and a Thai flag were

hauled out of the embassy and thrown on a bonfire on Norodom Boulevard, where several

thousand other demonstrators chanted their support.

Thai Ambassador Chatchawed Chartsuwan's residence, which is behind the embassy, was

engulfed by flames. The ambassador had earlier been forced to escape over a back

fence, from where he was rescued by boat on the Bassac River, after he said he had

tried to call Cambodian government officials for help to no avail.

"This afternoon [Wednesday] I called everyone I know in the Cambodian foreign

ministry, the police, the defense ministry, but they did not turn up soon enough,"

Chatchawed told the Bangkok Post.

Minister of Defense Tea Banh confirmed the Thai ambassador had called for help but

said he underestimated how events would devolve.

"We had a force of police already stationed at the embassy," Tea Banh said.

"The police had to fulfill their duty. But I did not foresee the situation would

worsen as it did. That was a wrong prediction."

The burning entrance to the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel.

The outbreak of violence in the capital has dealt a major blow to diplomatic relations

between Cambodia and Thailand, the full impact of which has yet to be felt. Thai

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called it "the worst incident ever" between

the two countries, according to the Bangkok Post.

Prime Minister Hun Sen went on television on January 30 saying that the violent acts

were "very regrettable and detrimental to our nation and people." He blamed

the incidents on "a group of extremists who spread lies that the Cambodian Embassy

in Bangkok has been destroyed".

Hun Sen appealed "to all people to remain calm in this situation and try to

maintain political stability, security, social order, and to join together in the

development of the national economy, family livelihood and community in a better


He did not raise the issue of compensation for the damage nor identify who the extremists

were. The speech was broadcast repeatedly during the morning and afternoon.

 Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith at the Ministry of Information, when asked about

compensation, told the Post "We do have [the money]. We have to do it. It's

an obligation."

Tea Banh echoed this sentiment by saying, "The only option is for us to take

full responsibility."

Hundreds of Thais, fearing for their lives, fled for the airport in the early hours

of Thursday morning to be evacuated to Bangkok by a Royal Thai military transport.

The Associated Press reported that 511 Thais were flown out on four planes, including

all Thai embassy staff. Sources said that an additional 110 Thais would depart on

two late Thursday afternoon flights.

Rioters at the burning entrance to the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh about 6:30pm on January 29.

One human rights NGO said that at least 18 people were injured, according to preliminary

information from hospitals around town. Seven people had been wounded by gunshots.

There was no clear information on how many deaths may have occurred, although the

torso of a man was found early Thursday morning and one woman was reportedly shot

in the head Thursday at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel. Ministry of Interior statistics

show that more than 100 people had been arrested. Further arrests are expected.

The protest started off peacefully in the morning when around 100 demonstrators gathered

outside the Thai embassy, complaining about the perceived insult to Cambodian culture

by a Thai film star Suwanan Kongying.

She allegedly said she would not come to Cambodia unless Angkor Wat - Cambodia's

national symbol - was given to Thailand.

The story first hit news stands on January 18 in a local newspaper, Rasmei Angkor.

After that, Prime Minister Hun Sen joined the fray by saying at a speech in Kampong

Cham that "she isn't even worth a blade of grass at Angkor Wat".

Suwanan Kongying, who is known to Cambodians as Pakay Preuk (Morning Star), denied

in the Thai press that she ever said anything derogatory about Cambodians.

The mood turned ugly by late afternoon as the crowds swelled and demonstrators started

throwing stones. The outer wrought iron fence of the compound was breached, enabling

protesters to attack the front glass doors of the embassy directly.

From then on, with around 100 riot police totally outnumbered, the mob went berserk

and the recently-completed Baht 200 million ($5 million) embassy was put to the torch.

"It could have been stopped in the afternoon," said one Cambodian journalist

who observed the mayhem. "They were just burning tires. I don't know what Cambodia

will do to repair this damage."

How it started: students and kids with a poster of Thai actress Suwanan Kongying outside the embassy early on January 29.

After being pushed away from the embassy by riot police at 7:51PM, mobs then went

on a rampage around town attacking Thai-owned companies.

One group remained to confront the police on Norodom Blvd, and when they tried to

force their way back to the embassy, at one point attacking a fire truck and smashing

its windshield, the police finally opened fire with AK-47s at 8:25PM. About 100 stone-throwing

protesters were forced to retreat north up Norodom, lighting fires in the street

along the way.

In an almost casual manner, with the police and protesters taunting each other with

verbal assaults, interspersed by bursts of gunfire in the air from the police, the

crowd was pushed back to Independence Monument over the next hour and a half. Most

of the police were only armed with batons and so resorted to throwing stones as well

to help repel the mob.

The Post proceeded to survey the damage around town.

At 10:17PM the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel was in flames as one fire truck sat idle in

the parking lot with five cars burned out nearby. Around the back, looters were scrambling

over the walls and carrying away anything that moved: tables, mattresses, lamps,

etc. One soldier with an AK-47 wandered around near the swimming pool but took no

action to prevent the thefts.

The Shinawatra office on Mao Tse Tung Blvd had been trashed. Burned equipment, files,

phones and computers littered the street. On upper floors filing cabinets had been

toppled over, windows broken and chairs destroyed.

At 10:54PM a mob was ransacking a private residence at 245 Mao Tse Tung Blvd, just

east of the Inter-Continental Hotel, saying the house was "owned by a Thai citizen".

Two cars were on fire in the middle of the road and several dozen people were frantically

rummaging through the house, lugging out unopened VCRs and boomboxes and then dumping

them on the blaze with cheers of delight. There were no police present, while a crowd

of around 150 watched the chaos. One lone neighbor with a garden hose was attempting

to keep the flames from reaching his house. It was a sorry sight.

At the Juliana Hotel, Thai employee Panit looked dazed as he tried to figure out

what to do. The lobby had been sacked, but he said some of his staff had helped keep

a mob of around 500 from inflicting further damage.

Glass display cases were destroyed, chairs broken and windows smashed. Shocked hotel

guests wandered around the lobby. Several armed police were on guard and the road

to the hotel was blocked off to prevent any protesters from returning.

Near Psar Thmei firefighters were putting out the last flames on the top floor of

the Samart main office at 11:26 PM. The building was enveloped in smoke and looked

like it had been completely gutted by fire.

The sound of sporadic gunfire could be heard late into the night. By mid-morning

on January 30 it was reported that two Thai-owned company offices were still on fire.

Otherwise, a sense of anguished calm had returned to the capital.



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