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