The Thai Embassy was sacked and set ablaze along with several Thai businesses Wednesday, after a student demonstration left unchecked by police escalated into a riot of thousands.
Embassy staff fled to safety, while in Bangkok Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra prepared a team of commandos to protect Thai citizens if need be and said relations between the two countries had sunk to their worst levels ever.
Riots, which were still continuing at midnight Wednesday, left the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel and the main office of Samart mobile phone company gutted by fire and TV5’s station burning. The Juliana Hotel and the Cambodia Shinawatra mobile phone company were heavily damaged by rioters who said they were striking back at Thais for “looking down” on them.
The offices of both Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways were also damaged in the riots, and Agence France-Presse reported late Wednesday that Bangkok Airways had been forced to cancel its flights Thursday because its computer reservation system was destroyed.
Staff at the Thai Embassy would be recalled on Thursday, AFP reported the Thai prime minister’s Secretary-General Yongyuth Tiyapairat as saying in Bangkok.
Thaksin called the violence “barbaric” and said he tried to call Prime Minister Hun Sen, but was told he was not available, the Associated Press reported.
A Thai delegation led by Thai Commerce Minister Adisai Bokharamik arrived at Pochentong Airport Wednesday but later canceled planned trade talks with Cambodian officials, which were scheduled to be held today.
Only minor injuries were reported by hospitals late Wednesday.
Riot and military police moved on rioters late in the day, only after hotels and businesses had been looted and burned. Police interviewed as the riots swelled around them said they were helpless.
Deputy Commander of Phnom Penh Municipal Police Sim Hong said outside the embassy that he was powerless to act against such an enraged mob.
“What can we do?” he asked.
Other police interviewed late Wednesday night said they had been given no orders “from the top” to curb the riots.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara declined to comment Wednesday night, saying he was on the way back to the city from Preah Vihear province.
The riots were sparked by the ransacking and burning of the Thai Embassy, which stemmed from a student demonstration over unsubstantiated reports that a Thai television actress had made disparaging remarks about Cambodia and Angkor Wat.
The demonstration at the embassy deteriorated into vandalism, then looting, then burning at about 6 pm, when demonstrators began hurling rocks at the embassy from the street.
At around 6 pm, young men began smashing the sharp points off the embassy’s fence, and after several scaled the fence and threw concrete chunks through windows, there was little the handful of unarmed Cambodian police could do to stop the rioters’ momentum.
Just after 6 pm, the embassy fence was overrun in what at first started as a destruction-of-property contest. Under 50 rioters began smashing office windows, but when the glass frontplate to the foyer fell, allowing access to the main building, the number grew to at least 100.
As pyres burned at the compound’s two entrances, rioters made their way through the embassy, smashing through glass panels and wooden doors to first destroy, then steal, the equipment inside.
Hundreds of onlookers stood outside, cheering, clapping and singing.
Some of the Thai staff, including the ambassador, were inside when the destruction of the embassy began.
“I had to flee from the embassy,” Ambassador Chatchawed Chartsuwan said by telephone Wednesday night. “I had to climb out of the embassy to the river.”
The rioters began to pick apart the reception area, emerging from the embassy with wooden furniture, pillows and office supplies, which they threw on top of the already burning tires at the main gates.
Rioters proceeded up the stairs, eventually breaking their way into offices on the first and second floors. Computers, printers and smashed telephones lay on office floors. Lights were smashed and tables were torn apart. Their legs were made into clubs.
Less than 10 police were visible at first, unarmed and helpless to stop the rioters.
Some rioters continued to destroy the embassy while looters began gathering valuables, shoving small office supplies into their pockets and carrying equipment out under their arms.
One looter was seen running off with a computer scanner under his arm, another with a VCR behind his back.
Rioters used table legs to smash cars behind the main building.
At 6:25, the sounds of police sirens could be heard from the embassy and people began to flee from the main building, greeted by applause from their compatriots.
At 6:35, the mob pushed its way back into the complex, as youths at the front begged their way past the few police that stood in the way.
By 6:42, the first fires inside the embassy had started, fueled with gasoline brought by rioters, furniture and smashed computers and monitors. Two fires on the ground floor and another on the second floor took hold.
At least six fire trucks were parked on Norodom Avenue, idle.
At 6:47, a youth emerged from the embassy holding a wooden bas-relief of Angkor Wat over his head.
By then, hundreds more students had assembled on the street and more riot police had arrived.
No arrests were made, and the riot police could do little but stand around and watch the fires burn.
By then, a rumor spread that the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand had burned down. Two people had been killed, the rumor went. Then 20. Then the Cambodian ambassador.
None of it was true.
Nevertheless, fueled by the rumor and undeterred by police, a faction of rioters set off on motorbikes, looking, they said for Thai nationals and businesses.
Just after 7 pm, a mob arrived at the Shinawatra building. It was looted and set ablaze. People on the roof of the building were forced to jump to an adjacent building for safety.
By 7:30 pm, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters in Bangkok that he had readied a force of Thai commandos to dispatch to Cambodia to protect Thai nationals, AFP reported. He later ordered four C-130 military transport planes to be ready to fly to Phnom Penh on his orders to evacuate Thai nationals..
Thaksin said that the incident had caused Thai-Cambodian relations to sink to their “worst ever level” and he planned to recall embassy officials back to Bangkok on Wednesday, AFP reported.
Law student Hour Vichet, 20, speaking outside of the burning Thai Embassy, said he had heard at least 20 Cambodians had been killed in Thailand. He had read it in an e-mail at about 2:30 pm, he said.
“We’re not crazy,” he said, “but this is payback.”
Another youth, who identified himself as Tan, said that all Thai businesses and nationals were legitimate targets. Asked if he were worried that the embassy burning could lead to conflict with Thailand, Tan said he would sign up to fight.
“We must kill them back,” he said. “We will all volunteer to be soldiers.”
By 7 pm, Shinawatra’s office was ransacked, followed shortly by Samart’s.
An hour later, the government issued a statement read over TV saying, appealing to the rioters not to continue.
Meanwhile, thousands of students had gathered around two Thai mobile phone companies, looting them and setting them ablaze. People trapped inside the Shinawatra building were forced to jump to the next building.
“We have to burn this Thai company,” said Ka Sary, a student. “We want to warn them.”
By 8 pm, a mob had beset the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel. It was set ablaze also. At least six cars were set on fire, and the main restaurant was looted.
Youths left the restaurant carrying bottles of wines and cudgels, and at least one group threatened a group of Japanese tourists, who were only set free after speaking Japanese instead of Thai.
Pat Sophea, a Cambodian employee of the hotel, said, “I’m not sorry about anything. I’m at my job. I don’t care.
“This is for Khmer culture,” he said. “I’ve been angry for a long time already. Not just today.”
At around 8:30 pm, a crowd of more than 300 protesters were pushed away from the Thai Embassy by at least 40 riot police. At least three were armed with AK-47s. The armed police shot into the air, as rioters threw stones and bricks at them.
The mob was applauded everywhere they went by people standing on curbs and balconies.
At 10 pm, the government made a second announcement, saying that the rumors of a protest or any injuries in Thailand were untrue. The announcement called on rioters not to be “incited” by the rumor. The announcement cited a report from the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand.
AFP reported from Bangkok that 150 anti-riot police have been posted to the Cambodia Embassy.
At around 11 pm, the mob filled Sothearos Quay Boulevard. The Thai flag flying above the riverfront was replaced with a Cambodian flag.
At press time midnight, a group of several hundred rioters clashed with police as they tried repeated assaults on the Thai Airways office.
© 2003 – 2013, All rights reserved.