Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Thaksin Shinawatra brings Thai politics to Cambodia

Submitted by Sukhpreet Manchanda
Tue, 11/10/2009

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Bangkok/Phnom Penh - Thailand's fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has brought his country's deeply divided politics across the border to neighbouring Cambodia, where he has taken up two advisory roles.

Thaksin arrived in Phnom Penh on Tuesday after being appointed last week as a special advisor to the government and personal advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The Thai government reacted to the appointment by recalling its ambassador to Phnom Penh on Thursday and launching a review of all bilateral agreements. Cambodia reciprocated by recalling its ambassador Friday.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called Thaksin's advisory role direct interference in Thailand's domestic affairs and an affront to its judiciary.

Thaksin, 60, is Abhisit's political archrival. The Thaksin-backed Red-Shirt movement and Puea Thai opposition party have been pressing for a house dissolution since Abhisit came to power in December 2008.

Thaksin faces a two-year jail term in Thailand after being found guilty in absentia last year of abuse of power by the Supreme Court for Political Office Holders. He has been living in self-exile, mostly in Dubai, since fleeing Thailand in August 2008.

Thaksin, and now Hun Sen, claim the sentence was politically motivated. Cambodia has made clear it would refuse to extradite Thaksin to Thailand, despite a bilateral extradition treaty.

For its part, the Cambodian government continues to insist that the appointments are a purely internal matter.

"He is here for economic reasons, not for any activities related to politics," Cambodia's government spokesman Phay Siphan told reporters Tuesday. "You must understand that Cambodia does not allow [foreign nationals] to do politics within Cambodia at all."

But one does not have to look far to find analysts who see political motivations at work. Cheang Vannarith is the executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, a political research organization in Phnom Penh.

He said a Thai election, anticipated next year, is a factor in Hun Sen's calculations.

"Hun Sen foresees the future of Thai politics in that the Thaksin group could win the next election in Thailand," said Cheang Vannarith. "By that time bilateral relations can be rebuilt and the friendship restored."

He said the root cause of the problems between the two kingdoms - and therefore the solution - is to be found in Bangkok.

"Thai politics is divided which is why there's a lot of conflict," Cheah Vannarith said. "Thailand has exported that conflict to Cambodia, such as with the border issue at Preah Vihear."

Preah Vihear, an 11th-century Hindu temple on the Thai-Cambodian border, has been a source of bilateral tensions for five decades. Although awarded to Cambodia in a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1962, Thailand objected to it becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2008.

The Democrat Party, led by Abhisit, seized on the Preah Vihear issue last year when it was in opposition to blame the then pro-Thaksin coalition government of allowing Cambodia to lay claim to still disputed land adjacent to the temple.

Hun Sen believes the Preah Vihear spat is unlikely to be resolved as long as the Democrats are in power.

And the Cambodian prime minister has made the most of the Thaksin card.

He announced his intention to provide Thaksin with refuge in Cambodia two days before Thailand hosted a summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) from October 23-25. Upon arrival at the summit Hun Sen drew a comparison between Thaksin and Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize laureate who is revered and admired by many.

Thaksin, a former billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was Thai premier between 2001 and 2006, before being toppled in a coup which had widespread support from Bangkok's middle class and the political elite. He has become the unlikely hero of the country's poor, whom he wooed successfully with populist policies and a sense of empowerment.

He is fighting for a political comeback at a time when Thai courts are moving in on his family's 2 billion dollars in frozen bank deposits.

"Thaksin wants his money back and why shouldn't he?" said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a close Thaksin ally.

But he may have taken a political gamble in taking Thai politics to Cambodia, both a recent and historical rival for Thai kingdoms through the ages.

"It could boomerang on him," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "We Thais will fight among ourselves but once you have an outside force meddling, we tend to close ranks and turn against it." (dpa)


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