On the evening of January 29, 2003 an angry mob stormed the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, setting the building on fire and sending the Thai ambassador and embassy employees running for their lives. By morning, the building was severely damaged and more than twenty Thai businesses throughout the city had been looted or burned. Authorities still don’t know who was behind the attacks, but it was a Thai television soap opera star who ignited the incident by allegedly claiming that Angkor Wat, the historic Cambodian temple complex, was stolen from Thailand by the Khmer. The television star’s comment and the violent reaction that followed arise, in part, from the historical claims by both Thailand and Cambodia to Angkor as a symbol of national heritage and identity. (note 1) A regional crisis ensued as Thailand threatened to go to war with Cambodia unless the Cambodian government issued a full apology and reparations.
How could a soap opera star trigger such chaos? Thai television soap operas, known in Thai as lakhon (pronounced la cawn), are broadcast widely throughout much of mainland Southeast Asia and take center stage in the daily lives of millions of people. (note 2) In many respects, lakhon resembles television soap operas in the west, but unlike most western soaps, which are broadcast during the daytime hours and literally go on for years without ending, lakhon series air during prime-time evening hours and continue for three to six months from when the story begins. Lakhon stars often mean more to viewers than does the prime minister, and large numbers of fans flock to see their favorite stars when they appear in public. Because lakhon has become so popular in Thailand and has gained such a powerful influence in people’s lives, we can use it as a window into some of the current beliefs, societal trends, values, and attitudes of contemporary Thai culture.
1. Angkor remains the dominant symbol of Khmer national heritage, but the Thai claim to Angkor can be traced to the Ayutthaya Period of Siamese history (1350–1767 C.E.). By the 1420s the once vast kingdom of Angkor, which had at one time encompassed large parts of present day Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, was in decline (Wyatt). The Siamese took control of Angkor and surrounding areas in the 15th century and modeled many aspects of their kingdom on Angkor. These areas remained under Siamese control until 1907 at which time Siam ceded the territories to the French. However, Angkor never disappeared from Thai national heritage claims and historical consciousness (See Keyes; Thongchai).
2. With the popularity of television viewing growing throughout the region, the dominance of the Thai television industry in countries such as Cambodia and Laos is a politically charged issue. Discussions, criticism and debates about the potential loss of cultural and linguistic heritage were common in Laos and Cambodia when I traveled throughout the region from 1992–94.
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