- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

BANGKOK, Thailand, Jan. 30 (UPI) — Thailand downgraded diplomatic relations and closed its border with Cambodia Thursday in retaliation for the outbreak of anti-Thai violence in Phnom Penh.

Thai military C-130 transport planes from Phnom Penh and from the northern city of Siem Reap evacuated hundreds of Thais.

The Cambodian ambassador to Thailand was handed a strongly worded protest letter and ordered to leave within 24 hours.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said diplomatic ties were immediately downgraded from the level of ambassador to the level of charge d'affaires.

"We are being made victims of (Cambodia's) internal affairs," Thaksin said. "All of our relations with Cambodia are now frozen until they give us a satisfactory explanation and a formal apology."

He said the border with Cambodia would be closed and only Thais and other non-Cambodians would be allowed to enter Thailand.

The violence Wednesday night was touched off by remarks attributed to Thai soap opera star Suyanan Kongving who was quoted as saying Cambodia should "give back" to Thailand the Khmer temples of Angkor Wat.

However, she has categorically denied making any such remark and has tearfully apologized for causing any trouble between the erstwhile peaceful neighbors.

The Thai and the Khmer have fought many wars. Siem Reap, the Cambodian city closest to the 800-year-old Angkor Wat temple complex, means "Defeat Thailand" in Khmer.

Although the two countries are allied in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, many Cambodians resent Thailand's relative wealth and the country's high-profile investments in Cambodia.

In Phnom Penh, the body believed to be that of a worker at a Thai-owned hotel, was killed, with his head and arms severed, on Thursday morning after a night of arson and looting in the Cambodian capital's streets.

The Thai embassy was gutted, along with the ambassador's residence and several Thai-owned businesses.

The Phnom Penh headquarters of Shinawatra Communications, owned by the family of the Thai premier, was among the buildings severely damaged in the violence Wednesday night. Three hotels, the Juliana, Regent Park and Phnom Penh Royal, were also heavily damaged, as were two television stations, TV3 and TV5, and several Thai restaurants.

A Thai Commerce Ministry official estimated financial losses to Thai businesses in Phnom Penh at more than $23 million.

All commercial flights between Bangkok and Phnom Penh were suspended and tourism officials said Cambodia's vital tourist industry was grinding to a halt.

However, Bangkok Airlines said it would continue a limited schedule of flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap.

In Bangkok, about 100 people had a noisy but peaceful rally Thursday outside the Cambodian embassy. The demonstrators burned Cambodian flags and threw bottles inside the embassy compound.

The crowd grew in the afternoon, spurred on by rumors that the rioters in Phnom Penh had insulted the Thai royal family.

But at about 6 p.m. Thailand's national police chief, Gen. Sant Salutanond, read out a statement to the demonstrators from Thai King Bhumibol urging them to go home. The demonstrators, who then numbered about 200, sang the king's anthem and dispersed.

Earlier Thaksin had pledged to ensure the safety of Cambodia's diplomats in Thailand. He said he did not expect the demonstrations in Thailand to turn violent because "we are not barbarians."

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