Parallel U
pt. II

Number 24–Righteous Ruckus

The recent riots here in Phnom Penh, in which the Thai embassy and prominent Thai owned businesses were burned, sacked and looted, provide the perfect sequel to my last email.

The immediate cause was a remark allegedly made by a popular young Thai soap actress – picked up from a year old magazine, totally unsubstantiated and unequivocally denied by the actress herself – that Angkor Wat really belongs to Thailand. Angkor graces the Cambodian flag and is the single most important icon of Khmer culture and source of pride, not to mention tourist income, for an ancient nation.

Of course, a single comment by an apolitical actress could not have ticked off such a vehement and costly reaction – it will cost Cambodia between 25 and 46 million dollars to compensate for the damage; 5% of its annual budget. Rather the animosity between the two peoples goes way back and remains right on the surface today.

Cambodians don’t want to give up their displeasure over the shrinkage of their territory during the past millennium – the Khmer empire once controlled most of what is now Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Many here still claim the Mekong delta, home to Saigon and a big chunk of Vietnam’s population though Cambodia had not controlled the area for 200 years. Cambodia’s area today is a small remnant of its past and the loss still rankles a proud people. Still, such rage over a single remark made by a popular but inconsequential actress?

An article in one of Thailand’s two English language dailies exemplifies the antecedent of the primary cause of the anger. The article, referencing the closing of the border, which Thailand did in response to the riots, assumed that Cambodians would be suffering economically – because of lack of trade and loss of food imports from Thailand. It therefore suggested that people living near the border should be prepared to find Cambodians sneaking into Thailand for the purpose of stealing food and pets to use as food.

Cambodians uniformly think that Thais look down on them, and that article is indicative of how many Thais feel (I’ve never heard of Cambodians eating pets). Although there is much Thai money invested here and Thailand is building roads and financing other development projects they also maintain quite a haughty attitude.

There is an ancient temple in northwest Cambodia that sits right exactly on the Thai border – literally 100 feet from the entrance. After years of contention, each country claiming it as theirs, the world court recently decided in Cambodia’s favor. However, the temple sits right on the edge of an escarpment, almost a cliff, and is easily accessible only from the Thai side. Very abruptly, about a year ago, Thailand closed the only access road, complaining that Cambodian vendors were polluting a little stream that ran into their country, and insisting that the vendors be moved a short distance from the entrance because they were crowding it and making it tacky – Thailand wanted to do some nice plantings, spruce it up.

Cambodian vendors were undoubtedly polluting the stream, it’s just their way. However, Thailand is hardly a paragon of sanitation and fastidiousness, notwithstanding a per capita income ten times that of Cambodia. It may be neat and tidy compared to Cambodia, but the typical anal retentive American would still be aghast and appalled at the general dirt and pollution level.

The Cambodian villagers earning their keep from marketing to tourists were also undoubtedly seriously degrading the ambiance and esthetics of the temple entrance; hey, they’re a funky lot, what can I say. Some blame for that can also be leveled at Cambodian laidbackness, incompetence and lack of organization. But clearly the road closure by Thailand was more pique at having lost the legal battle for the temple than any terrible damage done by the villagers – it had been that way for years.

Thailand insisted it was not going to relent until it got its way so rather than give in to Thailand’s demands, a road was built on the Cambodian side – just finished two weeks ago; paid for by the city of Phnom Penh which is a good 200 miles from the temple – up to the foot of the escarpment. It takes a two hour steep uphill hike to get to the temple from where the road ends; eventually pavement will wind its way to the top. Still, ten thousand Khmers made the hike on opening day even though the temple is way the hell at the end of nowhere. Hey, that’ll show ‘em.

A few days before the fracas, when the soapster story first surfaced, PM Hun Sen stoked the fires of pride and resentment by righteously and indignantly stating, in his typically blustery and hotheaded manner, that the actress wasn’t worth a single blade of grass growing at Angkor.

As for the event itself, it all started out as a noisy student demonstration but turned the corner into rampage when a false rumor circulated – started on the web and rebroadcast on one radio station – that 20 people had been killed at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok in response to their demonstration.

When all manner of hell broke loose the cops; 1. stood by helplessly, unable to prevent the mayhem – probably also sympathized with the rioters; 2. were simply incompetent, partly from having little real training or proper equipment; 3. were not given the orders to intervene. All three of course were true, but most intriguingly, why were the cops held back? The PM, who in spite of all of his lame excuses and justifications has suffered a heavy loss of confidence and prestige, said he held them back because he didn’t want anybody to get hurt, which would’ve only further incensed the mob. Considering the force and anger of the protesters, which numbered more than a thousand, stopping the damage would certainly have resulted in casualties.

Wouldn’t it be outrageous if American police held back because they didn’t want to hurt anybody? What’s a little property damage compared to living, breathing human beings? They are paid enough, why aren’t they trained to do their job without gratuitously busting heads? It must be because they love swinging those batons and the resulting sound of cracking skulls, what other reason could there be?

All of this led to some lively classroom discussions (why else am I living this crazy life? – other than I need to work to survive) and a lot of learning and understanding of local culture on my part. However, as I related to my students, what surprised me the most is that the violence just didn’t fit in with my image of Khmers as warm, gentle, forgiving, tolerant and accepting of everybody.

Obviously one cannot discount the tremendous national violence and depravity recently experienced by these people or evidently the ability to blow their tops when their pride is hurt.