Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Thailand's Cultural Might Sparks Regional Jealousy ; Cambodia Was Stirred into a Violent Frenzy Last Week over a Thai Actress's Alleged Insult

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Thailand's Cultural Might Sparks Regional Jealousy ; Cambodia Was Stirred into a Violent Frenzy Last Week over a Thai Actress's Alleged Insult

Article excerpt

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. …

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