Monday, 9 November 2009

Cambodia's Hun Sen provokes new diplomatic row with Thailand


Development and climate change: People row a boat across the Mekong River in Kandal province, in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. A jostle for influence in Southeast Asia's emerging Mekong River region moved up a notch over the weekend when Japan hosted leaders from five countries in a two-day event in Tokyo that focused on sustainable development and climate change. The region that includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.Photograph by: Chor Sokunthea, Reuters, Vancouver Sun

http://www.vancouversun.com/
By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver SunNovember 9

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Little milk of human kindness flows through the veins of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.

If an opportunity presents itself to add insult to injury or injury to insult, Hun Sen is not a man to miss the chance.

His sparkling new friendship with Thailand's deposed and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a fine example of Hun Sen's instinct for the kidney punch.

It was announced in Phnom Penh on Wednesday that Thaksin has been appointed special economic adviser to Hun Sen and the Cambodian government.

This will, of course, give Thaksin immunity from extradition to Thailand where he has been sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for corruption.

And in any case, Hun Sen has already scoffed that those charges were politically motivated to justify the 2006 military coup in Thailand that ousted Thaksin; a coup that had the fingerprints of senior advisers to the Thai royal family all over it.

In outraged reaction to Thaksin's appointment, Thailand on Thursday withdrew its ambassador to Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government swiftly retaliated by calling home its man in Bangkok.

On Friday Thailand's Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said he wants to cancel a 2001 agreement to jointly develop submarine oil and gas reserves in a disputed area in the Gulf of Thailand.

The memorandum of understanding was signed while Thaksin was prime minister, but there has been no progress in joint exploration of the 26,000-square-kilometre area and Kasit said he will propose to the Thai cabinet that the deal be scrapped.

Thai government spokesmen, meanwhile, say that all talks with Cambodia on trade and economic matters will now be halted and Thailand may even close the border over the Thaksin appointment.

This is the latest flare-up in a smoldering dispute between the Bangkok and Phnom Penh governments that came to a head in mid-2008 over rival claims to ownership of the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple complex, which is just inside Cambodia, but most easily accessible from Thailand.

At least nine people have died in skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian troops who face each other across the border.

Hun Sen's adoption of Thaksin, and the granting of sanctuary and a job, is being seen in Thailand as interference in the country's internal affairs.

Hun Sen says that's rubbish, but it's hard not to interpret the Thaksin appointment as a purposeful poke at Thailand's internal instability and the increasingly harassed government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Thaksin, after all, still has a large following of supporters among Thailand's urban and rural poor who regularly mount mass anti-government demonstrations in their signature red shirts.

There are reliable reports that Thaksin, a former policeman who founded a multibillion-dollar communications empire, gives financial backing to the red shirts.

Just as unruly as the red shirts are their opponents in yellow shirts, and Prime Minister Abhisit's theoretical supporters, from the inappropriately named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

When PAD supporters demonstrated on the Thai side of the border near the Preah Vihear temple last month, Cambodia's Hun Sen went into one of his typically intemperate rants.

He told local and foreign reporters that any Thai who strayed across the border would be killed.

This was just before a summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The animosity between Hun Sen and Abhisit put the brakes on moves to make ASEAN into a common market like the European Union.

But one has to wonder how genuine is Hun Sen's professed friendship for Thaksin. It has the smell of an alliance of convenience for both men.

Thaksin gets protection after several years of dodging Thai attempts to extradite him from various hiding holes.

And Hun Sen gets a useful stick with which to beat Bangkok whenever the mood or opportunity takes him.

One reason for this opinion is that Hun Sen's troubles with Bangkok go back much further than the temple troubles. Indeed, they started in 2003 when Thaksin was the Thai prime minister.

At the end of January in 2003 there were anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh led by political militias loyal to Hun Sen. The militias took to the streets, ravaged buildings belonging to Thaksin's communications conglomerate and burned the Thai embassy.

They were urged on by a verbal rampage by Hun Sen against a popular Thai soap opera actress, Suvanant (Kob) Kongying, also known as Morning Star.

Hun Sen made a public rant against her after it was reported, absolutely erroneously, that she had said the famed Cambodian temple complex, Ankor Wat, really belongs to Thailand.

Actually, the real cause of Hun Sen's anger with "Kob" was that he suggested they have a romantic encounter, as it were, and she told him to get lost.

jmanthorpe@vancouversun.com

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