By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Published on January 19, 2011
Loud nationalistic slogans from the so-called "patriots" will do nothing to help save the seven Thai nationals facing prosecution in Phnom Penh. In fact, these slogans might worsen the situation because Cambodia could interpret them as direct threats to its security.
If activists in Thailand desisted from trying to turn it into a boundary dispute, Phnom Penh could treat it as a normal trespassing case and issue a speedy verdict, and let the seven off leniently. The release of two of the detainees on bail last week was a test for the Thai side - whether they will keep it simple or complicate matters.
The cases of Democrat Party MP Panich Vikitsreth and yellow-shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid are two extreme examples.
Both were part of the same group of seven who were arrested on December 29 for allegedly inspecting the disputed area near Ban Nong Chan in Sa Kaew province. Initially, all seven faced the same charges - trespassing and unlawfully entering a military zone - which is punishable with 18 months in prison.
In his testimony, Panich said he had crossed the border by accident, compared to Veera, who insisted that he was arrested on Thai territory and that the area belonged to Thailand. Panich and yellow-shirt activist Narumol Jittawarattana were granted bail last Thursday, while Veera will be spending more time in Prey Sar prison.
The other four had obviously learned their lesson; they adopted the right approach, cooperated with the court and ended up getting bail yesterday.
Still, granting bail does not bring the case to an end. The six temporarily out of jail need to stay in Cambodia until the trial, the date for which has not been set yet.
Now, reaction from the people in Thailand would be important and critical for the verdict. If Thais see the case as no more than a normal illegal entry, then it could be treated as a simple trespassing case in accordance with the Cambodian immigration law. However, if the people here see this case as a territorial dispute, then it could become complicated, with Cambodia considering it a threat to its national security.
The so-called group of patriots and the yellow-shirt movement most probably want to make this case bigger than it should be. They insist that the seven were on Thai territory and are singing Veera's praises, calling him a hero who is fighting to protect the motherland. They are trying to push the government to take the same stand by rallying in front of Government House as well as lodging a petition with the Palace, asking His Majesty to intervene. They are also calling on many senior government office holders, including Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, to step down.
Several yellow-shirt leaders are also using this as an opportunity to accuse the government of failing to protect Thailand and its sovereignty, as some demand that the government scrap the memorandum of understanding on boundary demarcation signed in 2000. Meanwhile, some crazy nationalists want the military to kick out Cambodian communities living in the disputed boundary area, and one "patriotic" academic is taking things further by claiming that it was a Thai king who built the great Angkor Wat in the early 12th century.
Some media activists have also jumped on to the nationalistic bandwagon and are now floating unconfirmed reports about military deployment in border areas - increasing tension between the two countries.
Though all these moves are aimed at putting pressure on the government, they are also sending confusing signals to Phnom Penh. It appears as if Thais would much rather have a conflict with the neighbouring country rather than maintain good relations and cooperate to solve the problem.