Thursday, 3 February 2011

Internal rifts weaken govt in dealing with Cambodia

via CAAI

Published: 3/02/2011

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court's verdict on Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipatanapaiboon has upset the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has vowed to step up its "fight for justice" for the two Thais. Which means the political temperature will rise against the government.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva peruses a document before attending a meeting at Government House in Bangkok on Jan 31. The PAD have hinted they might contemplate taking over Govt House once again, if their demands are not met.

The Cambodian court on Tuesday sentenced Mr Veera to eight years behind bars and his secretary to six years in jail for espionage. The verdict has heated up the ongoing PAD rally on Ratchadamnoen Avenue.

Since the yellow shirts returned to Ratchadamnoen on Jan 25, they have claimed a victory to cheer up protesters. For PAD leaders, even though the government has not given in to their demands, the cabinet and the army have reportedly already shown some signs which have somewhat satisfied them. These included the statement issued by the Foreign Ministry on Monday to reiterate that the disputed 4.6 square kilometre area was on Thai soil, and the pressure by the Second Army Region to force the Cambodian government to tear down tablets denouncing "Thailand's invasion" of the area.

Other moves included Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's green light for reinforcement of troops in the border area near Preah Vihear Temple and a call by the cabinet for Cambodia to take down its national flag at the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda and for the army to put up a Thai flag near the disputed area.

The government has to deal with two fronts now. One concerns the attempts to help Mr Veera and Ms Ratree, as well as efforts not to let the problem get blown out of hand into a renewed conflict with Phnom Penh. Another front is the handlng of the rally engineered by leaders who once were the government's ally in street demonstrations to oust Thaksin Shinawatra and his political network.

Now the PAD has turned to attack Mr Abhisit, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and aides to the prime minister such as Democrat MP for Songkhla, Sirichok Sopha. These five names have been branded "Thais with Cambodian hearts, and traitors" by the demonstrators.

The government's position is that it wants to negotiate with the yellow shirts to quickly end the protest, for fear of ill-intended people worsening the situation. One man whom the government is approaching is Buddhist monastic Samana Photirak. Mr Abhisit and his men in the government believe that only Samana Photirak and his Santi Asoke members understand that the information used by the PAD contains some "misunderstanding", especially in the claim that Thailand has already "lost territory" in the disputed area to Cambodia.

There has so far been no answer from Samana Photirak whether he is ready for talks with the government or its representative to "exchange information". No response from the sect leader has made the government nervous. It fears that as the rally drags on, it will become more difficult to counter the one-sided information spread by the PAD among demonstrators and members at the rally and through its ASTV media network.

For the PAD, it is keeping the next strategy a secret although it has announced its intention to take the rally to "another level".

The government is relieved that the rally has as yet not turned violent but any prolonged protest would not benefit the country either.

Another effort of the government is to closely coordinate with security agencies in the hope of finding a suitable venue to hold talks with PAD leaders.

So far the government has no reason to accept the PAD's three demands. The call for the government to abolish the memorandum of understanding signed between Bangkok and Phnom Penh in 2000 and to come up with a new one is "impossible". Nobody could guarantee that Cambodia would sign a new MoU. Terminating the 2000 MoU would benefit Phnom Penh as it would give the Cambodian government a reason not to negotiate with Thailand on the land border demarcation.

Another demand, for the withdrawal of Thailand from the World Heritage Committee's membership, would also put the country at a disadvantage. The committee is a forum for the government to explain the situation to the international community. As a smaller country, Cambodia naturally gets more sympathy from other countries in the conflict with Thailand.

Thailand cannot expel the Cambodian community and soldiers from the disputed area by force. Doing so - as another condition put up by the PAD - would means Thailand has to start a war with Cambodia and this would give Phnom Penh legitimacy to claim the disputed area around Preah Vihear Temple, since the temple was listed as a World Heritage site in 2008. The PAD's statement that only a show of force over the disputed area would give Thailand an advantage at the negotiating table, is not practical.

The bottom line is that if the present stand-off between the PAD and the government cannot be resolved, then Thailand will find it difficult to solve the problem with Cambodia. If the conflict with Cambodia gets blown out of proportion, Hun Sen could launch a rally for domestic and international support because it is a smaller country. He can rally people behind him without worry about the political stability of his government. As a smaller country, other countries are likely to stay behind Phnom Penh, too. And every time there has been a conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, all the citizens have supported Hun Sen.

Nattaya Chetchotiros is Assistant News Editor, Bangkok Post.

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