- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) Thailand sealed its border with Cambodia, recalled its ambassador and sent military planes to evacuate hundreds of terrified Thais yesterday after rioters looted and torched its embassy in the Cambodian capital.
At least one Thai man was believed to have died when a hotel was set on fire Wednesday during the riots. The unrest was ignited by a Thai TV star's purported comments that Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple should belong to Thailand.
Seven persons were injured in the anti-Thailand protests, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow in Bangkok. A mob of about 1,000 people set fire to part of the Thai Embassy before Cambodian security forces dispersed them with shots fired into the air.
Thai Ambassador Chatchawed Chartsuwan said that he escaped by climbing over an embassy wall. Nine other embassy staff also fled.
Roving gangs also set fire to or damaged three hotels, two restaurants, a Thai Airways office and three telecommunications company offices.
"We have stopped all activities with Cambodia. No Cambodian will be allowed to come to Thailand, and we will bring all Thai people out from Cambodia," said Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok.
Mr. Thaksin said that he had ordered a suspension of all government projects with Cambodia and recalled the ambassador. Diplomatic ties were downgraded to charge d'affaires level.
The national carrier, Thai Airways, suspended flights to Phnom Penh until Monday. All border crossings were closed, and 67 illegal Cambodian workers were rounded up in a crackdown ordered by the Defense Ministry.
Thailand said the measures would remain in force until Cambodia gives full explanation for its inaction against rioters, punishes the culprits and compensates for the damage, estimated at $23 million.
The Cambodian government issued a statement later yesterday expressing regret for the violence and promising quick compensation for damage to the embassy. It said a committee would be established to find ways to compensate the private businesses that were damaged.
The riots broke out after a Thai actress, Suwanan Kongying, was quoted as saying Cambodia illegally annexed Thai territory that included the Angkor temple complex.
In Bangkok yesterday, she denied making the comment.
A newspaper editor who first published the comments on Jan. 18 told the Associated Press that his report was based on rumors and was probably incorrect.
The purported slight reignited centuries-old distrust in underdeveloped Cambodia of its larger neighbor, Thailand.
To Cambodians, the Angkor temples are cultural icons. The silhouette of Angkor Wat, the best-known of the structures, adorns the Cambodian flag. This national symbol also is the world's largest religious monument in stone.
Until recently, Cambodia mostly ignored the temples of Angkor, rising from a jungle canopy like jewels dotting a green silk scarf. Then the ancient Buddhist and Hindu monuments became the pillars of Cambodia's nascent tourism industry. Officials rely on the attraction to lift the country's struggling economy.
Apart from Angkor Wat, such monuments as Bayon, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Banteay Srey, Ta Prohm and Roulos also are popular with tourists.
There also is concern that the survival of the ninth- to 14th-century temples may be in jeopardy as planeloads of tourists traipse through their corridors, climb stone steps to shrines and brush fingers on the bas reliefs of gods, goddesses and demons.
The concerns echo those raised about other ancient monuments around the world, from the Pyramids of Egypt to the Taj Mahal in India: How do you balance the hunger for tourism dollars with the need to protect legacies for future generations?
Cambodia's government says that it will do everything to protect about 40 sacred Angkor structures on the outskirts of Siem Reap, a northern town near the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's biggest freshwater lake.
Conservationists and critics of tourism development are not convinced.
"The temples are under severe pressure," said Tamara Teneishvili, who works for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on conserving the temple complex.
"The serenity of one's visit to Siem Reap and the temples is what's magical and, unfortunately, that's in jeopardy," she said. "Instead, people are trying to turn it more and more like Las Vegas."
Vann Molyvann, Cambodia's most prominent architect, agrees. He led, for seven years until 2000, the government authority in charge of Angkor's development, but was fired after refusing to back down in a dispute with well-connected developers over setting building codes for Siem Reap.
"It could be catastrophic. Siem Reap-Angkor cannot cope with the impact of mass tourism," he said. "It will be a disaster for us if as many people come as they say will."
About 250,000 foreign tourists visited the temples in 2001, up from 60,000 in 1999, according to government figures. The government's goal is to attract 1 million visitors annually by 2010. Tens of thousands of Cambodians also visit the temples each year.
The Apsara Authority, in charge of Angkor's development, acknowledges that the tourist influx is a concern but contends that it has time to improve the small town's outdated infrastructure. Still, donor and private funding to improve the water, sewage and electrical systems haven't been arranged.
The government has rejected requests from businessmen to start a sound-and-light show for Angkor Wat and a plan to build an escalator to the top of a hill that provides stunning views. It has, however, granted permission to a company to start taking tourists aloft in an anchored hot-air balloon.
"Our first priority is preservation, [but] we cannot control everything," said Bun Narith, director of Apsara Authority.
Built by a series of god-kings who ruled an empire that covered much of mainland Southeast Asia for 500 years, the temples were forgotten for centuries and preserved by dense jungle until a French explorer stumbled on them about 140 years ago.
During much of the modern boom in international travel, tourists stayed away from Cambodia as it suffered a series of civil wars. After elections in 1998 seemed to entrench peace, visitors began pouring into the poverty-stricken country like never before.
Until five years ago, a visitor to Angkor could be virtually alone while watching the sunset from Phnom Bakeng, a 230-foot-tall hill between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Today, the peak is elbow to elbow with people at dusk, and its base is a jam of honking tour buses, cars and motorbikes jockeying for parking spaces.
"It's view pollution," Mrs. Teneishvili said.
Mr. Vann fears the temples will crumble unless cars are banned from the temple park a large area of jungle and savanna and aircraft stop flying directly over the ancient structures to or from an airport three miles away.
Such drastic measures are required to reduce stress on the ancient structures, most of which were built without mortar, he said.
"Vibrations are slowly destroying the temples," he said. "The current flight path is directly over the Bayon, and a crash could destroy it."
Government officials disagree that development will harm the temples, let alone cause destruction.
Apsara Authority officials say a ban on vehicles is being studied and an international airport for Siem Reap could open in 2012.
There are varying figures for income generated by tourism, but estimates range from $200 million to $450 million in 2001, making it a major engine powering an economy that otherwise depends largely on foreign aid.

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