Thailand cut virtually all ties with Cambodia today and evacuated hundreds of its terrified citizens from Phnom Penh after unprecedented anti-Thai riots there.
The violence was sparked by comments allegedly made by a Thai TV soap star, who reportedly said Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple was stolen from Thailand.
The newspaper editor who first published the comments on January 18 today admitted his report was based on rumours and was probably wrong.
At least one Thai man is thought to have died in a fire at a Phnom Penh hotel that was torched by the mob yesterday, officials in Bangkok said.
An infuriated Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra suspended all business, cultural and other activities with Cambodia.
“We have stopped all activities with Cambodia. No Cambodian will be allowed to come to Thailand and we will bring out all Thai people out from Cambodia,” he said.
“All ongoing government projects on technical and economic cooperation between the two countries are henceforth suspended,” said an official Thai letter handed to the Cambodian ambassador before he was expelled. Thailand also recalled its ambassador.
Cambodian premier Hun Sen blamed “a small group of extremists” and rumourmongers for the violence, and said relations with Thailand had reached “a level of concern”.
Cambodia’s chief government spokesman Khieu Kanharith apologised for the violence.
“We did not expect this to go this far. It was a mistake. We apologise and regret what happened to Thailand and her people,” he said.
Cambodians are sensitive about the Angkor temple complex, a cultural icon and source of national pride which was built between the 9th and 15th centuries.
Cambodians also have a historical distrust of their bigger, richer neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, who they fear have designs on their territory.
Cambodian authorities have arrested more than 100 people, but none have so far been charged.
Five Thai military C-130 planes evacuated 511 people who huddled at Phnom Penh airport today after fleeing for their lives. Another 100 will be taken out later today.
Among those evacuated was Thai Ambassador Chatchawed Chartsuwan, who said he had escaped by climbing over the embassy wall as the building was torched by a 1,000-strong mob.
Later, roving gangs caused an estimated €20m worth of damage, setting fire to or damaging three hotels, two restaurants, a Thai Airways office and three telecom company offices. Thai Airways suspended its flights to Phnom Penh.
Thaksin said Thailand appears to have become victim of a political conflict in Cambodia ahead of national elections in July. He said the Thai armed forces were on full alert.
“In case something happens in Cambodia and its government cannot control, I will send Thai troops to protect Thai interest and people there,” he said.
Thai Defence Minister General Thammarak Isarangura na Ayuthaya ordered all border checkpoints closed and all Cambodian “workers and beggars” to be sent back.
“I told the police to round them up and dump them at the border,” he said.
About 5,000 Cambodians, mostly traders who regularly cross the border in northeast Thailand, were turned back, he said.
In Bangkok, scores of Thais demonstrated outside the Cambodian embassy and burned the Cambodian flag. They also pulled out the brass insignia and lettering on the wall. Police stopped them from climbing over the walls.