Thais flee Phnom Penh after night of rioting

 

CAMBODIA: Military aircraft evacuated hundreds of frightened Thais from Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, yesterday after a night of riots in which the Thai embassy and Thai businesses were torched.

The unexpected violence sparked a diplomatic storm, with Thailand closing its borders to Cambodians, recalling its ambassador to Phnom Penh and cutting economic and technical co-operation with its smaller south-east Asian neighbour.

Bangkok also threatened to expel hundreds of thousands of Cambodians working illegally in Thailand.

Cambodian Prime Minister Mr Hun Sen said relations had dropped to a "level of concern", as authorities in Phnom Penh said several hundred people had been arrested for the riots.

Phnom Penh was edgy but peaceful last night. In Bangkok, however, angry crowds gathered at the Cambodian embassy, burning Cambodian flags and an effigy of Hun Sen.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej issued an appeal for calm, but there were no immediate signs of the protesters dispersing.

Thailand said the Cambodian authorities had done nothing to stop the extensive damage. The foreign ministry estimated the cost to businesses and for its embassy repairs came to more than one billion baht (€23 million). Cambodia said it would pay.

"Certainly we are happy to pay the damage bill and we are happy to let Thai officials join the investigation," Cambodian Defence Minister Mr Tea Banh told Thai television.

He said authorities had made "a few hundred" arrests of demonstrators and looters. "We have arrested the key players. We miscalculated the situation. We did not think it would escalate to this worst case. That's why we could not contain the mob."

The violence was sparked by reported remarks by a Thai actress that the ancient Angkor Wat temple, the national symbol depicted on Cambodia's flag, belonged to Thailand. She has denied making the remarks.

Angkor Wat, which lies deep in Cambodian territory, has not been disputed in modern times, but the neighbours have several areas of dispute on their land and sea borders. Cambodians also resent what they see as Thai exploitation of their resources.

After a day of flag-burning and anti-Thai chanting that had played on the inherent distrust most Cambodians feel towards their much bigger neighbour, the gangs set fire to the embassy and made bonfires of furniture in the mission compound.

Angry crowds prowled Phnom Penh into the night, setting fire to cars and attacking Thai-owned and other foreign businesses, including Cambodia Shinawatra, the Cambodian branch of a telecoms company set up by Thai Prime Minister, Mr Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Hun Sen blamed the riots on a small group of extremists.