Thailand's cultural might sparks regional jealousy

Cambodia was stirred into a violent frenzy last week over a Thai actress's alleged insult.

Suwanan Kongying is an unlikely firebrand. Her doe-eyed beauty and soft-spoken charm have made the young actress one of Thailand's hottest soap-opera stars.

But last week, her script took on a darker tone after newspapers in Cambodia claimed that Ms. Suwanan was refusing to visit until Cambodia handed over ownership of Angkor Wat temple - a national icon - to Thailand, its bigger neighbor. Cambodia promptly banned her show.

Thousands of Cambodians stormed the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, forcing the ambassador and his staff to flee over the back wall. The mob went on to torch Thai-owned hotels, offices, and shops. Thursday, Thailand sent military planes to evacuate hundreds of its nationals and suspended economic ties and aid.

Diplomatic fallout between the two countries continues this week - Thailand officials will visit Cambodia this Tuesday to estimate damage.

How did the reported words of a TV soap star spark such a nationalist frenzy? The answer, say observers, lies partly in Thailand's role as economic and cultural powerhouse in the region, and in the attachment to TV role models in countries like Cambodia. In short, "Morning Star," Suwanan's soap-opera character, became a lightning rod for Cambodians torn between admiration and resentment of Thailand's might.

"It's a love-hate relationship [between Cambodia and Thailand]. We Thais also feel the same. We love American culture and Japanese culture, but at the same time we feel we're being controlled culturally by Hollywood movies and Japanese comics," says Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri.

Thai soap operas, pop singers, and films have huge followings in Cambodia and Laos, where local broadcasters struggle to compete with Thailand's better-funded production houses and studios.

"Thailand is unrivaled in its influence around the region [because] its radio and TV waves don't stop at the border," says Philip Cunningham, an Asian media analyst and former visiting fellow at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

To some intellectuals, this onslaught hints at deeper worries of domination by a bigger, more powerful neighbor. But to young audiences who are the most avid consumers, Thailand is a byword for modernity and progress.

"Thailand is the rich relative, so anything that Thailand sings or wears or does is picked up by the other relatives," says Andrew Biggs, a producer for Thailand's Channel 3, which broadcasts in Cambodia.

This pulling power can quickly backfire when poor relatives feel snubbed by their rich heroes. "[Cambodians] feel betrayed by someone they love and admire," says Dr. Charnvit, referring to Suwanan. "So their reaction is out of control."

Cambodia, which has apologized for the riots and offered compensation, isn't alone in claiming to feel under siege from cultural intruders. But its cash-strapped government is unlikely to follow the lead of France and Canada, and support local alternatives to US films, music, and media.

Thai companies also control much of the telecommunications, forestry and tourism in Cambodia. "From a battlefield to a marketplace" is how Thailand once described its war-ravaged neighbor.

The allegations against Suwanan first surfaced in the Cambodian newspaper Light of Angkor, named after the same 12th-century temple that the actress supposedly coveted. Ownership of the temple and surrounding province passed between Thailand and Cambodia in past centuries, including the early period of French rule of Cambodia. Suwanan denied the inflammatory comments, and the newspaper's editor has since been arrested and charged with spreading false information.

In Thailand, most officials concluded that the incident was manipulated with an eye on elections in July. The blame game is also under way in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen accused opposition leader Sam Rainsy of taking part in the protests, while Rainsy in turn claims that Hun Sen was stirring the pot in the run-up to the riots.

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