Special Report: Cambodia & Thailand: Arson and Angkor

2003

Chris Baker

On 29 January 2003, a mob burnt down the Thai embassy in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and attacked the offices of several Thai-owned companies, particularly hotels and telecommunication companies. Cambodian press and radio had reported that a Thai actress currently popular in Cambodia had said that Angkor should be 'returned to Thailand'.

Despite the violence, almost no Thais were hurt, and only a few big companies were targeted. This suggests the mob was 'managed'. But who managed it, and why, is unknown and probably unknowable. (There are already countless theories.) Anyway, it is the broader context which is more important.

Siam/Thailand has tried to dominate Cambodia since the mid-eighteenth century - and particularly the northwestern part including the Angkor temples. It repeatedly sent armies; developed the northwestern part as a traditional tributary state; and, tried to place a pliant ruler on the Cambodian throne. In the 1850s, the Thai king sent an expedition to dismantle an Angkor temple for reconstruction in Bangkok. The region’s powerful kings regularly relocated important Buddha images from tributary towns to their own capital. But this abortive attempt to relocate a whole temple testifies how important Angkor still was for the Thai monarchy as a repository of royal and sacral power.

In 1907, the French defined today’s border between Thailand and Cambodia. Soon after, Thai nationalists began to call northwestern Cambodia (and other former tributary areas) as the 'lost territories'. In 1941, after the fall of Paris, a Thai army attacked the French Foreign Legion in Cambodia, and the Thai government persuaded the Japanese to cede northwestern Cambodia (and other areas) to Thailand. But the Japanese excluded Angkor. After the war, the border was restored to the 1907 line, but until the mid-1950s Thai generals hoped Thailand would gain some territory from the collapse of French Indochina. This history might be just history, but for the fact that this earlier political domination is now echoed by economic domination. Since the late 1980s, Thailand has been committed to 'turn battlefields into marketplaces', and to profit from its greater economic strength. Thai companies have been active in logging, gem mining, and many other businesses in Cambodia. But what gives the early history special resonance today is the large part that tourism plays in the economies of both Thailand and Cambodia, and the large place that monuments like Angkor play in that tourism.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Angkor had to pass through Phnom Penh. But Thailand exerted pressure to change that. Now most visitors fly from Bangkok. Thailand has recently offered to help upgrade the road from the Thai border to Angkor. The Thai tourist authority enthusiastically projects Thailand as a 'gateway' to the neighbouring countries. In this important business, Angkor already has been 'returned to Thailand'. Bangkok’s new airport is to be named 'Suwannaphum' (Golden Land), a term intimately connected with its historical attempts to dominate its neighbours.

This Thai expansionism provokes reactions, and not only from Cambodia. In recent years, there have been similar incidents with Laos and Burma. Modern politico-economic quarrels are expressed in complaints about historical or cultural domination.

Because of the close everyday links between Thailand and Cambodia, the embassy incident is being quickly repaired diplomatically. But the question of Thailand’s economic power and ambition is bigger and more difficult.

WATCHPOINT: With upcoming general elections in Cambodia due in July 2003 (and already accompanied by significant levels of violence), how will such issues be manipulated by political contestants to garner electoral support?

 

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