Pavin Chachavalpongpun happened to be in the wrong building at the right time. A Thai diplomat in Phnom Penh, he was at Cambodia’s commerce ministry on January 29, 2003, working on some documents. “Don’t you dare go back to the Thai embassy,” he was warned. The venerable riverside building would soon burn to the ground. Thai businesses would follow, and Pavin would have to deny his nationality to escape a beating or worse — all because of a false story about a Thai soap opera actress.
As this year’s U.S. election and your uncle’s social media posts show, fake news can be a powerful force. But a full year before Facebook hit Harvard, old-fashioned phony newspaper stories helped set Cambodia’s capital ablaze.
There’s … an aspect of people in Cambodia feeling like they’ve been looked down upon for a long time by Thais.
The story had power because of its protagonist and subject matter. Suvanant Kongying was then a 24-year-old former ice skating champion — a star not only in Thailand but across the border in Cambodia, where many televisions pick up Thai broadcasting signals. At the time, according to Pavin, Suvanant was playing a character resembling one from a common theme in Cambodian folklore, juicing the show’s popularity there. So when Khmer-language daily papers reported — without basis — that Suvanant said Cambodia had stolen Angkor Wat from Thailand and denigrated Cambodians, people took notice. And they were not pleased.
The breathtaking temples of Angkor are a source of immense national pride for Cambodia and a huge tourist draw. The 12th-century Angkor Wat’s iconic spires appear on the nation’s flag, currency and beer labels. While Angkor is safely away from Thailand, the two nations have fought over Preah Vihear temple, which resides near the border. Long the richer, more modern neighbor, Thailand had never been subjected to colonial rule and benefited from American largess during the Vietnam War. Cambodia was a frequent battlefield and was ravaged by the Khmer Rouge genocide. The palatial Thai embassy in Phnom Penh became an ostentatious reminder of Big Brother next door. “There’s also just an aspect of people in Cambodia feeling like they’ve been looked down upon for a long time by Thais,” says Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “A lot of Cambodians work as guest workers or illegal workers in Thailand. There’s a significant chip on their shoulder about that.”
In the early 2000s, prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Hun Sen in Cambodia used nationalism to consolidate power. Hun Sen, who remains in charge today, seized upon the controversy by saying Suvanant was not “even worth a blade of grass at Angkor.” The actress denied the offending quote — or anything like it — but the fuse was lit. As tension built, teenagers rode around on motorbikes with pictures of Suvanant, declaring that Cambodia was not a colony of Thailand. “I thought it was a joke,” Pavin says.
On the day the anger boiled over, many demonstrators were fueled by another false rumor — broadcast on the radio — that the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok had been attacked, and their countrymen murdered. The Thai embassy burned, as well as the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel and other Thai businesses. Pavin was riding with Thai colleagues when their car was confronted by men with large pieces of wood asking where they were from. They replied: Singapore. “All of us look at bit Chinese; that’s why we got away with it,” Pavin says. The cadre of Thai diplomats finally fled at 5 a.m. on a crammed C-130 sent by the Thai government. Somehow, no Thai citizens were seriously injured, but rioters caused an estimated $50 million in damage.
Belatedly, Hun Sen went on television on January 30 to say the Bangkok rumor was false and to blame the rioting on “extremists.” He reaped the political benefit. Often accused by his foes of allowing too much Vietnamese influence in the government, Hun Sen was able to shift the ire to Thailand. Outside observers, including the U.S. State Department, blamed the Cambodian government for allowing the riots to get out of hand. Police arrested looters and journalists who had reported the rumors, some of whom just happened to be government foes. Hun Sen won re-election that July and plans to extend his 30-plus-year rule by running again in 2018. Relations between the neighbors, never too warm, have improved considerably in recent years. But as the fake news–inspired mayhem of 2003 showed, it does not take much to set this relationship on fire.
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