Cambodian royalist rage: A lesson for Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 24, 2012

Last week, the former King of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk, died in exile at the age of 89 years. The monarch played a major role in the country’s turbulent past, having been credited with leading Cambodia to independence from French rule but also assisting the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime. He served numerous times as prime minister and twice as King of Cambodia until ceding the throne to his son in 2004.

However, royalist rage erupted last week amid an online scandal. The privately run ‘I Love Cambodia’ page on Facebook posted a picture on October 17 showing Thapanee Eadsrichai, a reporter for Thailand’s Channel 3, doing a piece-to-camera while laying her paper notes at her feet. One of the pieces of paper was a portrait of the late King Norodom, which the reporter almost stepped on – an unimaginable offense to any individual, let alone a King, in Cambodia and Thailand.

This accidental misstep by Thapanee sparked outrage on Cambodian social media – as of writing, on the original Facebook post alone over 900 ‘likes’ and over 500 comments have been posted with the majority spewing hateful, emotional and often barely comprehensible calls for violence (or worse) either against the Channel 3 reporter, Thailand or both.

Fortunately, the ultra-royalist rage hasn’t turned to violence and all involved parties were executing damage control, with the Cambodian government calling on its people to exercise restraint, and the Thai reporter, her channel and the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs all apologizing, insisting that there was no intention to defame the late King and to harm relations between the two country

The Channel 3 reporter explained that as she was doing a stand up report in front of the main pavilion,  Chaturamouk, and she needed to lay down all of her personal belongings including mobile phones, notebooks, and the newspapers which carried stories and the photo of the late king Sihanouk.

She said she did not lay the stuff close to her. The photo that appeared on Facebook was shot from behind and to the side, making it appear that the items were on the ground near her.

Learning about the misunderstanding on the social media on Tuesday night, she had returned to the same spot and made gestures of remorse in front of the king’s photo board.

Reporter apologises for mistreating Sihanouk photo“, Bangkok Post, October 10, 2012

The story could have ended there with all sides acting very quickly to defuse the situation and to clear up the unintentional gaffe. Nevertheless, some still found something to be riled up about:

After causing an uproar by mistakenly stepping on a photograph of late Cambodian King Sihanouk while covering his funeral, Channel 3 reporter Thapanee Ietsrichai is in trouble again – this time it is for not taking her shoes off while apologising at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok. Messages posted on Cambodian websites and the social media dubbed her apology as being insincere, claiming she was “not genuinely penitent”.

Channel 3 reporter in trouble again“, The Nation, October 19, 2012

Relations between the two countries have been strained in recent years. In 2003 a Cambodian newspaper wrongly accused a Thai actress of claiming Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.  Riots ensued and protesters burned down the Thai Embassy in Phnom Phen. There have also been a number of border clashes between the two countries. On the other hand relations have turned friendlier recently with the new Yingluck government, as Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen welcomed her brother Thaksin more than he already used to.

One thing the two countries certainly have in common is a tendency towards royal extremism. The ferociousness of the reactions to this latest incident in Cambodia should give Thais an opportunity to reflect about similar behavior among their own people. The Thai Ministry for Information and Communication Technology (MICT) issued a redundant warning to Thais not “to share or to ‘like'” the controversial photograph and cited the same ambiguously worded Computer Crimes Act that it has been using in against suspects in lèse majesté cases.

With the unchanged stances over Thailand’s lèse majesté law and the continuous insistence of Thai ultra-royalists to show their loyalty to the monarchy by witch-hunting those deemed not loyal, some should look at the comments made by their Cambodian counterparts to get an idea of how it feels to be a victim of extremism.