Many Mornings After

By Bhanravee Tansubhapol

PHNOM PENH –  Five months ago, Sours Vichet would have probably thought twice before going around Phnom Penh while carrying a notebook with a picture of Thai actress Suwanan Kongying on its cover.  But these days the 22-year-old student displays no fear as he totes the notebook about in the city, where hardly anyone glances at the face of Suwanan peeking out underneath his palm.

Indeed, it seems Cambodians no longer want to recall the violence that broke out in late January, when a comment attributed to Suwanan – more popularly known here as Prakray Pruak – prompted angry mobs to attack the Thai embassy here, along with businesses known to be owned by Thais. According to some newspapers and radio stations, Suwanan had declared Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat as properly belonging to Thailand. The actress later denied making such a comment, while the media organizations that had run the report could show no evidence to back up their story. By then, however, much damage had already been done, with some of the Thai-owned businesses even razed to the ground.

Today, many Cambodians try to laugh off the incident as just one of the hazards of being in a place notoriously known as “rumor city.” Relations between Cambodia and Thailand that were frayed because of the violent attacks are now also on the mend. In March, Cambodia paid Thailand $250 million as compensation for the damages wrought by the mobs on the Thai embassy, and the two nations have agreed to establish a joint cultural committee to help prevent similar incidents in the future.

The committee surely has taken a long time coming, and indications are it would be best to see it up and running as soon as possible. While irresponsible media are largely to blame for the January riots, a sense of distrust, which appears to be deeply rooted, was also a major factor that helped make Cambodians believe so readily that Suwanan had made such a claim.

For all the goodwill being shown by both sides these days, there is no denying that Cambodians and Thais remain wary of each other. A member of the Thai embassy here, for instance, says there is no telling when “another rumor about Thailand will be spread again,” sparking a fresh round of anti-Thai riots. Some Cambodians, meanwhile, are prone to ask visiting Thais they deem to be fairly friendly: “Don’t the Thai people like the Cambodian people? Do they really believe that Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand?”

Reviewing history

Angkor Wat, of course, is Cambodia’s crown jewel of a heritage site, so much so that its image is on proud display on the country’s flag. It is by far the most beautiful of the temple complexes built during Cambodia’s Angkor period, which lasted from 802 A.D. to 1431. Completed in 1150, it was the project of Suryavarman II, who had extended the Angkor empire into what is now central Thailand, as well as areas bordering Pagan and parts of the Malay peninsula. Thai slaves are believed to have been part of the workforce that had built Angkor Wat, which is located in what is now known as Siem Reap, meaning “defeated the Thais” in Cambodia’s northwest. Thais, however, know the same province as “Siemraj,” or people of Siam, referring to the Khmers, whom the Thais say they defeated once upon a time.

Thai soldiers actually invaded Angkor in 1431, carting away valuable artifacts and even the kingdom’s famous court dancers. Angkor is believed to have been abandoned sometime after that, but by the time Cambodia became a French colony in 1863, Siem Reap and Battambang were already part of Thailand. The two provinces, however, reverted to Cambodia in 1907, when the French annexed them as part of their colony.

These are facts. But there are several ways of looking at the same set of facts, depending on one’s perspective.

Many Cambodians, especially those in tourist-dependent Siem Reap, understand Thai, and there are those who have reported overhearing Thai tourists as saying that Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand. Says one Cambodian ticket-seller there, speaking in Thai: “I feel very angry when I hear people saying that (Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand). I often argue with them.”

The irritation felt by some Cambodians toward such talkative Thais could only be aggravated all the more whenever they see the proliferation of Thai goods, as well as the presence of big Thai companies, in Cambodia. According to one Thai businessman who has been working here for the past nine years, there are Cambodians who feel Thais are invading their country a second time, this time through business.

Still, says the businessman, such Cambodians are a minority. Even after the January riots, “most vendors still welcome the Thais,” he says.

Thai-language classes are also popular among Cambodians who want to work for Thai companies or cater to Thai tourists. There are also those who want to learn Thai just so they can understand Thai pop songs and soap operas, which have been consistent hits here. Thai-language teacher Aiell Aeing remarks, “If the Cambodian people hate the Thais, they would not learn how to speak Thai. And if the Phnom Penh government has the same thinking, it would not allow schools to teach the Thai language.”

Fears and less profit

Here, however, are new facts: Since January, Aiell Aeing has had fewer Thai-language students, and the size of his classes has been reduced to more than half. Two TV stations have also stopped showing Thai dramas, although an official from one of the stations says they could be back on air after the July 27 elections. “We have to give the Cambodian people more time (for their anger to subside),” he says.

Aiell Aeing, for his part, says the decline in the number of Thai-language students can be traced to fears of being attacked by “anti-Thai fanatics.” Another possible reason, however,  could be the decrease in the number of Thai tourists, who at this time of the year should have been flocking into places such as Siem Reap. Already badly affected by the SARS scare, Cambodia had been counting on visitors from neighboring Thailand to shore up its flagging tourist numbers. But the violence earlier in the year have apparently had Thais rethinking any travel plans to Cambodia – which may also have led to a similar change in plans among Cambodians who would have enrolled in Thai-language classes so they could act as guides to Thais.

Even the likes of Angkor tour guide Chhoun Chhai, who has spent years catering to Thai tourists in Siem Reap, are now learning to speak English. He says some of his colleagues are studying French, German, and Japanese. “After the anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh, I was hired to be a Thai tour guide for only three days a month instead of  (the usual) 15 days,” says Chhoun Chhai. “I got only $20 a day, not enough for me.”

Not surprisingly, there are practically no new Thai investors in Cambodia right now. One Thai businessman who has been living here for a decade notes that the Thai companies that were affected by the riots have yet to receive any compensation for the damages they suffered. According to the businessman, the incident only shows how little protection is given to foreign businesses in Cambodia.

Talks for a trouble-free future

Cambodians say they do not want to see a repeat of the January violence. Many say they do not really hate the Thais and realize that as neighbors, Cambodia and Thailand must be able to understand and count on each other. This is why much hope has been placed on the joint cultural committee that will meet every three months and will hold a general meeting every six months.

Som Samnang, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, says that the committee wants to launch a joint forum on historical and cultural education that will deal extensively with school textbooks. “I think,” he says, “we should talk frankly and have open-minded discussions to resolve all misunderstandings about history and culture.”

A Cambodian lecturer on Thai-Cambodian relations also suggests that Bangkok provide scholarships to Cambodian students “to study in Thailand by which they will understand Thai culture and the Thai way of thinking better.” Others add that it would not hurt if Thais showed more interest in learning about Cambodian culture and history, especially when they are visiting this country.

Goodwill between Thais and Cambodians can be strengthened some more if Bangkok and Phnom Penh publicized the many development assistance projects Thailand has provided to Cambodia, such as the construction of schools and irrigation systems. Observers say this would help show that Thailand is not out to exploit its neighbor, and had even been lending it a hand.

But chances are it would take much more to convince Cambodians to welcome Suwanan once more into their hearts, despite the actress’s denials regarding the comment attributed to her. Although pictures of Thai actors, actresses, and pop idols are back on the shelves on many Phnom Penh shops, a photo of Suwanan is nowhere to be found in the capital. Except, that is, on the cover of Sours Vichet’s notebook.

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