In November, Cambodia boasted its success in providing “100 percent security” for 15 world leaders attending the 8th Asean Summit. But on Wednesday the government was unable to protect one of the country’s largest diplomatic compounds against a mob of youths armed with little more than sticks and stones.
The befuddling security lapse is not only extremely embarrassing for the government, but has raised serious questions from Thai officials who claim the government did not do enough to prevent one of the most serious international incidents to hit Cambodia in recent years.
Thai Ambassador to Cambodia Chatchawed Chartsuwan—who unceremoniously fled the now-gutted embassy by climbing a fence and escaping in a boat—slammed Cambodian authorities for being deliberately slow in protecting the compound from the mob of mostly middle-class students.
The ambassador told a Thai TV channel he was convinced the riot was not composed entirely of students and was an organized, not spontaneous, event.
“I asked for help from the [Cambodian] defense minister last night but help came too late. They should not have any excuse,” the ambassador said in an interview carried in the Bangkok Post newspaper.
“I called everyone I know in the Cambodian foreign ministry, the police, the defense ministry, but they did not turn up soon enough,” he said.
The night of anti-Thai rioting and looting is being described as the “worst incident ever” between the two countries.
Cambodian officials expressed regret for the destruction on Thursday but said their security forces were unable to control the situation.
“[The Thai ambassador] asked me for intervention and I sent the troops there. But the mobs were uncontrollable…. I didn’t think it could be like that,” co-Defense Minister Tea Banh said by telephone.
“It does not mean I deny to help [the Thai ambassador]. But we did not know what to do with the mobs…. They also beat police officials who tried to stop them. There were so many people over there,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng also expressed concern on Wednesday for the mayhem and said the outbreak of violence was a loss to the government and the country.
“We really regret what happened, particularly against the embassy. The loss is for the Cambodian government, and that also means our Khmer people lost,” he said.
Sar Kheng defended what appeared to many to be a small deployment of police and military police, claiming his forces were spread thin protecting sites throughout the city.
There are no signs of further disturbances, Sar Kheng said.
“We can control…. If we did not crack down it would turn into another problem,” he said.
Around 150 people have been arrested, including Mam Sonando, the manager of privately owned Beehive Radio, who was detained for questioning for allegedly inciting the mob by allegedly broadcasting that Cambodian Embassy officials had been killed in Bangkok, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
Khieu Kanharith told Agence France-Presse that most of those arrested had bought petrol near Pochentong Airport and planned to attack Thai airplanes arriving in Cambodia to airlift their nationals.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara—considered the city’s most powerful official—said he was late returning from Preah Vihear province on Wednesday and only arrived at 1 am, long after the destruction was complete.
“I really regret what happened because of the rumor of the killing of Khmer officials in Bangkok. It will not happen again,” he said.
“I appeal to my compatriots to please stay calm,” Chea Sophara said, adding that his presence in the city may have prevented the eruption of mob rule.
Phnom Penh’s official response to the riots—contained in an official Aide-Memoire obtained on Thursday—stated the government did not act negligently.
“[The] incident had developed in a magnitude, and at a pace that is beyond the expectation of the government so that it went out of the control of the authorities,” the document stated.
Cambodia will also establish a commission with Thai counterparts to provide compensation to the embassy and to assess the damage to Thai businesses, it added.
Early Thursday morning a dark- green Thai military C-130 Hercules transport plane swept low over Phnom Penh, one of some five aircraft that took part in a massive evacuation of more than 500 Thai nationals and embassy staff stranded after Phnom Penh descended into disorder.
The airlift began at around 5 am from the Cambodian air force base adjacent to Pochentong Airport amid high security, which was put into place in the early hours of Thursday morning when Thai evacuees were brought to the base.
An Immigration Police officer at the airport said at least one more C-130 plane was expected from Bangkok on Thursday afternoon to airlift Thai nationals who were expected to reach Phnom Penh from provincial areas.
Security at the air base was among the tightest in Phnom Penh with an armored personnel carrier and dozens of military police and B-70 commandos stationed at the approach road to the runway.
A Western diplomat said that Cambodian officials assisted in the airlift and staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were on hand as the Thai nationals departed Cambodia.
The night of rioting saw the razing of the Thai Embassy, the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, the offices of Thai mobile telephone company Samart, a Thai cement factory and a plastic bottling factory. Badly damaged were the offices of the Cambodia Shinawatra mobile telephone company, the Juliana Hotel, the TV5 offices, the Regent Park Hotel and several other small, Thai-owned businesses and homes.
Asian and Western diplomats said on Thursday they were stunned by the orchestrated nature of the attacks, which seemed to have been directed with an almost military precision against Thai targets.
The government’s inability to curtail the mobs left many questions unanswered and was likely to seriously impact foreign investment—especially from Thailand.
“Investors already have concerns about investment in Cambodia…. [The] latest incident really doesn’t sit well,” a Western diplomat said.
One Asian diplomat said it appeared that Cambodian security forces did not react in full strength to quell the night of violence.
But such a conclusion did not add up, as it would be impossible to believe that any benefit could have been gained from allowing the destruction reach such high proportions, the diplomat said.
Relations with Bangkok will now depend on Cambodia’s efforts at recompense, the diplomat said.
A second Western diplomat said resentment with Thailand has been simmering for months over the Preah Vihear temple, and rumors that the Cambodian Embassy had been razed and staff killed ignited into a collective anger.
“The government had underestimated the severity of the situation. But once it recognized it, the order was given to re-establish a level of control,” the diplomat said.
With police and military police present on the streets, the city is unlikely to see a resurgence in attacks, but “The next 24 hours are crucial,” the diplomat said.
Phnom Penh was largely free of the motorized hordes of rioters on Thursday, but one group of some 200 students were dispersed by military police firing weapons in the air near the smashed TV5 station at Borei Keila.
“[The students] said if they meet Thai they will kill,” said Chan Cheat, a student who witnessed the event.
A message by Prime Minister Hun Sen calling for calm was read out in Phnom Penh schools on Thursday stating the rumors of the Cambodian Embassy’s destruction in Bangkok were false and circulated by “extremists.”
Lao Tea Sorng, deputy director of Sisowath High School, said the students were prevented from leaving school during study hours and gates were locked to prevent “outsiders” from disturbing the school population.
“We just want them to focus on study,” Lao Tea Sorng said.
Half a dozen foreign tourists sifted through the rubble inside and outside the Thai Embassy on Thursday morning in a search for passports that they had left in the now-gutted compound to obtain travel visas.
Raul Catalan, a tourist from Mexico, arrived with three friends to try and find their passports.
The three searched through a large black plastic sack containing thousands of fire-damaged passports collected by police.
Catalan was the luckiest of the three: He found his half-destroyed travel document. His passport-less companions wandered helplessly.
“I’m not going to come back to Cambodia,” Catalan said.
The British Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a travel warning on Thursday advising caution to their nationals in Cambodia who were told to keep away from large gatherings, demonstrations and Thai-owned businesses and entertainment venues.
“Do not express forceful opinions regarding Thai or Cambodian culture. Do not travel after dark as rioting may start without notice,” the British Embassy said in an e-mailed statement.
The US Embassy issued a similar warning.
(Additional reporting by Kate Woodsome, Kay Kimsong and Lor Chandara)