2003 got off to a tumultuous start when unsubstantiated reports claimed that Thai television star Suvanant Kongying had stated Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.
Fiery riots broke out Jan 29 as thousands of Phnom Penh residents acted out their nationalistic aggression over the rumors.
About $50 million in damage was inflicted on the Thai Embassy and Thai-owned businesses around Phnom Penh. The next day, Thai expatriates were evacuated at Phnom Penh International Airport via a Thai military airplane.
Relations between Thailand and Cambodia gradually improved over the year, and $6 million to repair the embassy was paid in March. Thai businesses have asked for an additional
$48 million in compensation.
Following the riots, the municipality and Ministry of Interior have kept a tight lid on demonstrations, rarely granting permission for public gatherings.
The CPP won the July 27 national elections, taking 73 seats, nine short of the two-thirds majority needed to govern alone.
Funcinpec won just 26 seats, compared to the 43 seats it won in 1998. The Sam Rainsy Party won 24 seats, compared to the 15 seats it held before the election.
In a Nov 5 meeting with King Norodom Sihanouk at the Royal Palace, the three parties agreed tentatively to create a tripartite government. But the parties have yet to settle on how the government and National Assembly will be formed.
In June, after six years of talks, the government signed an agreement with the UN to hold a tribunal of the top Khmer Rouge leaders. Some observers, however, remain skeptical over the legitimacy of such a trial, saying that the Cambodian judges will not be impartial. The agreement still must be approved by the Assembly.
In April, May and June, government officials worked to prevent an outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed hundreds in East Asia and spread worldwide.
Measures included examinations of arriving passengers at the international airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Not a single case of SARS was confirmed in Cambodia, but tourism numbers still dropped sharply. Ministry of Tourism officials estimate that the number of visitors in 2003 was 10 percent lower than in 2002.
Foreign ministers from 23 countries, including US Secretary of State Colin Powell, visited Phnom Penh in June as the country chaired the Asean Regional Forum for the first time.
Several weeks before Powell’s arrival, Thai nationals Abdul Azi Haji Chiming and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, and Egyptian Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali were arrested in Kandal province for having suspected ties to the regional Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiyah.
In June, Cambodian Sman Esma El was arrested on similar charges. They remain in detention. Government officials have said US government intelligence helped lead to the arrests.
In August, information was released, according to witnesses and intelligence reports, that Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, spent time in Cambodia from September 2002 to March. The Indonesian is believed to have been al-Qaida’s top operative in Southeast Asia and operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah. He was arrested Aug 11 in Thailand.
In September Cambodia was approved for membership in the World Trade Organization. The Assembly must give its approval by March.
Impunity and violence remained a problem in 2003, and several high-profile Cambodians died in shooting attacks.
In February, Funcinpec adviser Om Radsady was shot and killed after leaving a Phnom Penh restaurant at midday. In April, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Sok Sethamony was shot dead as he drove to work.
On Oct 18, Chuor Chetharith, a reporter and editor for the pro-Funcinpec radio station Ta Prohm, was shot dead by gunmen outside the station’s office.
Three days later, popular singer Touch Srey Nich, 24, and her mother were shot by unknown assailants in daylight. Her mother, 59, died later that day, and the singer remains in critical condition at a hospital in Bangkok.