Two rumors, one of them months old, were the source of the fury that drove a mob on Wednesday evening over the Thai Embassy gates at the start of an hours-long riot across the city.
The first story, about a Thai actress who said Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand, had been traded for months among villagers in the northwest before it was published 13 days ago in a Phnom Penh newspaper.
The story built momentum this week when Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday criticized the actress for her alleged remarks, but it was a second, more violent rumor of Thais killing Cambodians Wednesday in Bangkok that rioters told one another as they stormed the embassy and set fire to the ambassador’s residence.
It’s not known who started either rumor, though the first came to Phnom Penh via the Rasmei Angkor (Light of Angkor) newspaper, which published the allegation that Thai actress Suvanant Kongying, popular in Thailand and Cambodia, had made disparaging remarks about Cambodia and Angkor Wat.
The unsubstantiated report has been denied by the actress.
“I was surprised that people in Phnom Penh just heard about this story because it has been told for a long time here,” said Poipet businesswoman Phall Mean. She said it’s been at least two or three months since she first heard the story.
En Chan Sivatha, the editor of Rasmei Angkor newspaper, said a woman visited his office earlier this month and reported to him the actress’ remarks.
“She said she heard all of this on television,” En Chan Sivatha said. “I asked her what evidence she had about the actress’ remarks and she said she didn’t have any. But my article was just to let authorities know so they could investigate it.
“I also said that we just got one source. I did not incite this problem between Cambodia and Thailand. However, I am sorry that it has happened like this,” he said.
En Chan Sivatha published the story Jan 18. The story became a national phenomenon when a second daily newspaper, Koh Santepheap (Island Of Peace), published a story based on the Rasmei Angkor article. Radio talk shows began taking calls from irate listeners who verbally criticized the young actress and Thailand. The story was then picked up by The Cambodia Daily and Cambodge Soir.
“Don’t be mistaken. [She] is not equal to a few bushes of grass near Angkor Wat,” Hun Sen said Monday, as he urged people to give up “foreign” products.
While the first rumor may have prompted the Thai Embassy demonstration, it wasn’t the actresses’ remarks that rioters were complaining about by the time they had sacked the embassy.
“Now, today, they are killing Khmer in Thailand,” said one man as he stood outside the Thai ambassador’s residence to watch it burn. “I want to hit the Thai person. We call inside to see if any are in there. We want them to come out so we can hit them,” he said.
The embassy staff fled with the assistance of Cambodian authorities, according to government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.
Khieu Kanharith said he is currently investigating the source of both rumors, but he believes it was outspoken independent Beehive radio director Mom Sonando who reported the deaths of Cambodians in Bangkok on Wednesday evening.
“That’s why these people got angry and attacked the embassy,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Mom Sonando denied on Thursday that he broadcast the story, adding that he never broadcast the first rumor of the actresses’ comments.
Later on Thursday, Khieu Kanharith told AFP that Mam Sonando was arrested by police.
Khieu Kanharith said he urged the Cambodian Journalists’ Association on Friday to squelch the rumor about the Thai actress. He said there were no plans to take action against the newspapers because they broke no laws, but urged the association to step forward and write a code of ethics to prevent the publication of more rumors in the future.
The rapid spread of both rumors was aided by e-mail and mobile phone text messages.
(Additional reporting by the Associated Press)