Thai Diplomats Keep Low Profile in Return to Embassy

If a photographer had been behind the Thai Embassy on the evening of Jan 29, 2003, he would have captured what would surely have been one of the most poign­ant images of the anti-Thai riots.

Alongside photographs of businesses burning and rioters tramp­ling on a portrait of the Thai King, he would have photographed Thai diplomats, including then-ambassador Chatchawed Chart­su­wan, scaling the back wall of the embassy, perhaps run­ning for their lives as young Cam­bodians stormed the building.

Thai diplomats, in­cluding the newly arrived am­bassador, Piya­wat Niyomrerks, were scheduled to move back into the renovated and reconstructed embassy building last week, presumably through the front gate.

The new ambassador said he wanted the embassy on Noro­dom Boulevard to be reopened “without fanfare.” The embassy’s return marks the end of a year of post-riot diplomacy that began with Thai Prime Minister Thak­sin Shinawatra declaring that relations between Thailand and Cam­bodia had reached their “worst ever level.”

The months after the riots saw  the downgrading of diplomatic re­la­tions to the charge d’affaires level, border closures and compensation negotiations and payments.

But in an interview on Jan 15, Piyawat Niyomrerks said relations between the two governments are now as “open as ever.”

The day after the riots, Thai­land stopped all trade, educational and cultural relations, and ceased agricultural aid to Cambodia. Bor­der checkpoints were closed, with Thaksin saying that “no Cambodians are permitted to enter our territory.”

Foreign Minister Hor Nam­hong traveled to Bangkok the following week, where he asked for, but was initially denied, an audience with Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The minister delivered an official letter of apology to Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathi­rathai.

Thai government officials came to Phnom Penh four days after the riots to assess damage, the first step toward normalizing bilateral ties.

The total damage was initially es­timated to be $23 million, then $46.5 million and finally $54 million.

A Thai delegation arrived Feb 10, accompanied by Prime Min­ister Hun Sen’s bodyguards, to reestablish a diplomatic mission in Phnom Penh. Thai diplomats have used a building near the Interior Ministry for much of the last year.

A $5.92 million payment to the Thai government in March to repair the embassy prompted the normalization of relations. The border reopened for good in March.

Thaksin and Hun Sen met on the sidelines of a Non-Aligned Move­ment summit in Kuala Lum­pur on Feb 24, and meetings be­tween Thai and Cambodian government officials took place throughout the year at other re­gional and international meetings.

That relations would be normalized and Thai investors would return was inevitable, as well as necessary, analysts predicted.

“It is in the interest of both sides for relations to recover,” a Western diplomat said in the im­mediate aftermath of the riots. “Relations with Thailand are crucial to Cambodia.”

A year later, Thai businessmen and diplomats in Cambodia go about their work with an informed wariness. They publicly express con­fidence in their safety, but privately wonder.

The Thai Embassy, for example, is considering arranging for its own security, although Piyawat Niyom­rerks was quick to say earlier this month that security provided by the Cambodian government is “sufficient.”

“I have no enemies here,” he said.


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