The actress, the temple and the alleged remark that brought two nations to the brink of war

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The Independent Online

They call her Kob. She is a 24-year-old Thai beauty, soap star and former ice skating champion, best known, until now, for her sultry looks in made-for-TV dramas.

They call her Kob. She is a 24-year-old Thai beauty, soap star and former ice skating champion, best known, until now, for her sultry looks in made-for-TV dramas.

Yesterday she was in hiding after a wave of anti-Thai riots in Cambodia caused by remarks she never made. The comments, wrongly attributed to Suwanan Kongying about a sacred 9th century temple have ignited a crisis between the two South East Asian neighbours which led to the threat of military intervention.

The crisis, which has brought relations between Cambodia and Thailand to their lowest point in centuries, erupted after a newspaper reported that Ms Kongying said that the venerable temples of Angkor Wat, the most prized symbol of Cambodian national pride, belonged to Thailand.

Kob denies she ever uttered the insult. As the face of Miss Teen, a Thai cosmetics brand that is a best seller in Cambodia, she may have been the victim of a smear campaign by rival Cambodian cosmetics companies, hoping her alleged words would trigger a boycott.

Whether she said what Cambodians thought she did is now academic. Violent riots and Thai flag burning followed the publication of the claim, culminating on Wednesday in the burning down of the Thai embassy. Thai military planes made seven emergency flights from Bangkok to Phnom Penh's airport to evacuate over 700 Thai nationals.

Yesterday Thailand's furious Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra retaliated by sealing the south-eastern border. Accusing Cambodian politicians of whipping up anti-Thai sentiment ahead of elections later this year, he imposed economic sanctions and withdrew the ambassador Chatchawed Chartsuwan, who was forced on Wednesday to climb the back fence of his residence and jump into a speedboat to flee from the mob. Protesters burst into the diplomatic compound and made bonfires of the furniture while almost a thousand more angry Cambodians massed outside. Police at the scene were overpowered by the angry throng. Fire engines arrived belatedly at the blaze, but no hoses were turned on the flames. One looter was shot dead during the spree.

As the violence raged Mr Shinawatra telephoned his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen giving him an hour to restore order or face Thai commandos. He then ordered the evacuation from Phnom Penh.

Tensions remained high yesterday as the Thai Defence Minister announced that all illegal Cambodian "workers and beggars" would be expelled. "I told the police to round them up and dump them at the border," said General Thammarak Isarangura na Ayuthaya. About 5,000 Cambodian traders were turned back at the frontier. For many incensed Thais, the last straw was seeing television footage of Cambodian rioters stomping on pictures of the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The monarchy is revered by Thais, and desecration of the king's image is illegal. Protest-ers massed outside the Cambodian embassy and tensions were not defused until a government spokeswoman told the crowd, "His Majesty has called for calm" and pleaded with the demonstrators not to stoop to the same level as the Cambodians.

In Phnom Penh, hundreds of looters swarmed over the burnt-out hulk of the Royal Phnom Penh hotel while stun-ned tourists poked through the ashes, looking for what remained of their belongings. The deluxe lodgings are owned by a Thai firm, and did not escape the wrath of students who knew that Thai diplomats had taken refuge there. They continued to shout "Crush Thailand" or "Thailand Thief" and hurl fire-bombs through the night, taking aim at a telecommunications firm owned by relatives of the Thai Prime Minister.

The tiny actress at the eye of the storm, meanwhile faced a phalanx of cameras in Bangkok and said it was the "worst day of my life".

The local Khmer press has lambasted the popular star, for her alleged refusal to perform in Cambodia unless Angkor Wat is returned to its rightful owner – Thailand. It remains a point of pride with Cambodians that Siem Reap, the gateway city to the 77-square mile temple complex, translates as "The defeat of the Siamese", and the serene carved buddhas surrounded by jungle are considered a national treasure.

Kob denies ever claiming that Angkor Wat, was stolen from Thailand. She said: "I insist I haven't spoken those words or given an interview about it. Some people said the comment might come from my role in the TV series.

"We have checked the recording but couldn't find anything that would offend the Cambodians."

The editor of the Cambodian newspaper which first published her alleged comments now acknowledges its report was probably wrong.

The Thai government has called the incident "the worst ever" between the two countries. Thai analysts say that while overt attacks against Thais may not have been foreseen, this clash was cynically orchestrated by the Cambodian elite in order to stoke nationalism and gain political capital in the July elections.

Sunai Phasuk, from the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, said the outburst took Thailand completely by surprise, and will cause a huge loss of confidence that will halt investment in neighbouring Cambodia. "Whoever started this couldn't control it," he said. "Whether it's the opposition, the coalition, or the ruling party – the rumour was spread by all."

He said the leadership in Cambodia picked up on what started out as a piece of minor business rivalry.

"They want to push xenophobia as part of a populist campaign," he said. "Normally, the Vietnamese are singled out as the bad guys when it's time to whip up nationalistic fervour in Cambodia, but this time the politicians eyed their northern neighbour instead.

"True, Thailand does have a history of political and cultural domination of Cambodia, and the resentment was already there".

Thailand is indeed the undisputed business giant in the Mekong region. Rapacious timber firms from across the border hack down the teak forests and Thai pop singers predominate on radio, television and even karaoke bars.

Even after the Baht currency collapsed and the Southeast Asian Tiger economy was tamed, Thai wealth makes underdeveloped Cambodia seem wretched and impoverished by comparison. Thai-owned cement factories supply the contractors to build Thai-owned hotels, and most tourists are brought in on Bangkok Airways.

There is even a perception that Thailand has offloaded its plague of paedophile tourists by cracking down within its own borders.

The Cambodian Prime Minister, Mr Sen, who announced that he was banning Ms Kongying's soap opera, blamed the riots on "a small group of extremists". Yet, although over 100 people were detained, no charges have yet been filed.

A Cambodian government spokesman said: "We did not expect this to go this far ... It was a mistake. We apologise and regret what happened to Thailand and her people."