Monday, November 9, 2009
Cambodia Rattles Thailand's Chain
HUA HIN, Thailand - Cambodia's long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, with a thumping parliamentary majority and a war-traumatized electorate fearful of change, may well have one of the safest jobs in world politics. This certainly seems the case in comparison with neighboring Thailand, where the premiership has changed hands four times in the past two years.
Nonetheless, Hun Sen is likely grateful for the popularity boost Thailand's government may have handed him through its heated response to his recent praise of and job offer to former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Hun Sen appointed Thaksin, who has been criminally convicted on corruption charges, as an economic advisor. The latter, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup, now lives in exile. Last month, Hun Sen hailed Thaksin as a "great friend" and a victim of a politically compromised judicial system.
The Thai government has viewed the offer as interference in its internal affairs and downgraded diplomatic relations. Angry protests have erupted at the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, and both nations last week recalled their respective ambassadors. Armed troops have also lined up to defend the Thai Embassy in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, but few Cambodians expect a repeat of the 2003 anti-Thai riots, which saw the embassy burned to the ground and Thailand ready airplanes to evacuate its nationals in a dispute sparked by a Thai actress' alleged comments over national ownership of Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple.
Some Cambodians, accustomed to Hun Sen's well-known tactic of bolstering his political clout by offering loyalists plum advisor posts, see the latest spat in less emotive terms. In the leadup to 2008 elections, Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) attracted many high-level defectors from the main opposition, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), to join his army of over 100 well-paid advisors.
Hun Sen has said he would refuse to honor a bilateral extradition treaty with Thailand that would require him to arrest and deport Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail sentence in Thailand on the corruption conviction. Although Thaksin remains a divisive figure with great sway in Thai politics, Bangkok's reaction may be over more than political insecurities.
Billionaire Thaksin was appointed by royal decree last Wednesday as an advisor to both Hun Sen and Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni. He is scheduled to land in Phnom Penh on November 12 to deliver a lecture to Cambodian economic officials and there are rumors circulating that he might meet with a group of Thai "red-shirt" protest leaders near the Thai border.
In Cambodia, the monarchy is seen as fair game for criticism by both the media and public. After observing for years former king Sihanouk's extravagant lifestyle and constant shifts to ensure his political survival - as well as political forays by other royal princes and princesses - many Cambodians are skeptical of the monarchy. The situation is very different in Thailand, where the monarchy is widely revered and where any perceived criticism of the crown can result in harsh jail sentences. One motivation cited by military coup-makers for their 2006 putsch was that Thaksin was disloyal to the crown - charges he's denied.
The differences between the two nations' histories and economic situations seem personified by their leaders. Thailand, one of the region's wealthiest nations and a member of the influential Group of 20, is led by Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Cambodia, still impoverished after a three-decade civil war and traumatized by the killings of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, is led by Hun Sen, a once barefoot temple boy who lived on handouts from Buddhist monks before becoming a teenage soldier. He first fought for the Khmer Rouge - a struggle that cost him his left eye - and then as part of the Vietnamese offensive that liberated the nation from the same radical Maoist regime in 1979.
Abhisit may have had a comparatively privileged upbringing, but Hun Sen enjoys political advantages. A seasoned leader, Hun Sen is in his 25th year in office - making his one of the longest-running premierships in the world. He led the CPP to 58% of the vote at general elections held in 2008, eclipsing widely the opposition SRP.
Abhisit, on the other hand, took charge last year as a result of Thailand's Constitutional Court disbanding the Thaksin-aligned ruling People's Power Party (PPP), which defeated his Democrat party at 2007 polls, on electoral fraud charges. His predecessor, Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, was in the job for only 75 days. Somchai's PPP predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, lasted only nine months after he was ousted by a Thai court on corruption charges.
It is not the first time that Hun Sen has capitalized on political turmoil in Thailand, especially since bilateral tensions were re-ignited last year over the contested ownership of the land surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear temple, perched atop a steep cliff on the Thai-Cambodian border. When a United Nations body sided with Cambodia's claim, Thai nationalists ran across the border, prompting a military build-up by both sides.
Phnom Penh first appealed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and then to the UN Security Council to take note of the issue, taking the diplomatic high road. It is unclear how the Preah Vihear dispute would have played out if Thaksin, also Hun Sen's golfing buddy, had still been in charge in Thailand. Some critics say the current tension is in part due to false assurances given in the past by Thaksin to Hun Sen about border delineation near the temple and other overlapping claims by the two countries. Thaksin's critics claim that he was willing to offer territorial concessions to Hun Sen in exchange for personal business interests, claims the exiled former premier has denied.
Thaksin last year proposed a multi-million dollar deal with Hun Sen to develop Cambodia's southwestern maritime province of Koh Kong, telling Thai media that he wanted to turn it into a "second Hong Kong". Hun Sen hailed the proposal as an
opportunity to reduce poverty in Cambodian-Thai border areas. Hun Sen's main domestic opponent says the premier's overtures to Thaksin are not motivated by scoring political points or a desire to uphold Khmer nationalism, but instead are due to pressure being exerted on him by Vietnam, the invading nation which initially installed him as premier in 1985 and which the opposition still claims has influence over the CCP government.
By Craig Guthrie Asia Times Online correspondent Thailand
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