By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH | Tue Feb 1, 2011 9:18pm IST
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian court on Tuesday handed down jail terms of eight and six years to two Thai activists who were found guilty of trespassing and spying, a verdict that could raise political tension in neighbouring Thailand.
The decision could add momentum to a small but prolonged protest by Thailand's "yellow shirt" activists angered by Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's diplomatic approach to dealing with a long-running border dispute with Cambodia.
Relations with Cambodia have become a bone of contention in long-running hostility between Thai political factions with the pro-establishment yellow shirts accusing their bitter foe, ousted former populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra, of colluding with Cambodia to Thailand's detriment.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has also used age-old rivalry with Thailand for his domestic interests.
The Cambodian court verdict also raises concerns about instability along the militarised border between the two countries. Both governments have had heated rows in recent years that have led to deadly skirmishes between troops.
Veera Somkwamkid, leader of a splinter faction of the yellow shirts, and his secretary, Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, were among seven Thais arrested by Cambodian soldiers on Dec. 29, when they entered a disputed border area.
The court in Phnom Penh sentenced Veera to eight years and Ratree, six years, for trespassing into the Cambodian territory, illegally entering a military zone and espionage.
"The decision is not acceptable," Veera told reporters. "There is no justice. We will fight this in a higher court."
The five other arrested Thais included a parliamentarian from Abhisit's ruling Democrat party. They were found guilty of trespassing late last month and were released after being given a suspended sentence.
The yellow shirts, formally known as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), have demanded Abhisit revoke a decade-old Memorandum of Understanding with Cambodia aimed at resolving border disputes.
Protest leaders earlier said Abhisit had not done enough to secure the release of the two convicted Thais and accused him of risking a loss of Thai sovereignty by failing to evict Cambodians from the disputed land.
The PAD has been demonstrating close to Abhisit's office since Jan. 25 and has until recently backed the premier. But they are now fed up with Abhisit's approach to border issues.
It now has a political party of its own, New Politics, but it has failed to garner much support and is expected to struggle in an election Abhisit insists will take place this year.
The PAD takes credit for helping Abhisit's rise to power having held crippling protests since 2005 against governments led or backed by Thaksin.
Thaksin's supporters, who wear red shirts, staged big and bloody protests against Abhisit's government in Bangkok last year. Tension has simmered since soldiers cracked down to end the protests in which about 90 people were killed.
Charnvit Kasertsiri, a prominent political historian in Thailand, said the border issue was once again being used to push political agendas and stoke nationalist fervour.
"This issue has been used for domestic political purposes on both sides of the border for decades. The question is: Why are they doing it again now and whether it would spill over into military skirmishes," he said.
The two governments have shown restraint in their handling of the issue, but rumours have swirled in the past week of live drills and troop reinforcements near the border. The talks has been denied by both armies, which say they are simply on alert.
"This is what both sides need to watch," Charnvit said. "This sort of rhetoric could spiral out of control and could also force the governments' hand to act if they felt threatened by changing public opinion and action on the other side."
Another standoff could play to the advantage of the royalist PAD, whose protest numbers have dwindled to the hundreds having peaked at about 4,500 a week ago.
Their return has sparked talk of a military coup, which the military and government has dismissed. Sustained PAD rallies in 2006 led to a bloodless putsch against Thaksin.
(Writing and additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Martin Petty)