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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thaksin Risks His Reputation

Former Thai Premier Appears Cozy With Nation's Rival

BANGKOK -- Since Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra was forced out of power in a military coup three years ago, he has made a show of traveling the world to keep in the public eye back home. But his latest gambit -- taking up a role as economic adviser to Thailand's neighbor and rival, Cambodia -- threatens to backfire and jeopardize his standing in the country he still hopes one day to lead, analysts say.

On Thursday, Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications magnate, began his new job by delivering a lecture on economic planning to Cambodian government officials in Phnom Penh, the capital.

The former prime minister, who still commands the support of many Thais, said he could use his business skills to help steer Cambodia's economic development. He has been photographed smiling and making golf plans with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen before he leaves aboard his private jet on Friday.

This is going down badly in Thailand, where many of Mr. Thaksin's critics accuse him of selling out his country's interests to help an ancient enemy. "If Mr. Thaksin persists with this alliance with Cambodia, the nationalist backlash in Thailand will pick up, even among his own supporters," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Mr. Thaksin's popularity has a bearing on the stability of one of America's main allies in Asia. The photo opportunities in Cambodia will play particularly badly next to images of Thailand's current, military-backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who on Sunday will host President Barack Obama in Singapore at the first summit between Southeast Asian leaders and an American president.

Mr. Thaksin accused his foes in Thailand of "false patriotism" by criticizing his trip to Cambodia. His decision to work as Mr. Hun Sen's economic adviser is risky. The two men are close personally and share a penchant for golf and sparring with their critics in the media. But historical enmity between Thailand and Cambodia runs deep. Cambodia's Khmer Empire, which dates to the ninth century, was for centuries the dominant power in the region.

More recently, anti-Thai riots broke out in Cambodia in 2003 after a Thai actress was incorrectly reported as saying Cambodia's national symbol -- the Angkor Wat temple complex -- belonged to Thailand. Since 2008, at least seven soldiers from both sides have been killed in clashes near another temple, Preah Vihear, which is claimed by both countries. A Thai man living in Cambodia was arrested in August for sketching out a map of the Angkor Wat complex on his toilet floor.

The dispute may also provide Cambodia with more leverage in future negotiations over competing temple claims -- as well as the significant oil and gas deposits believed to exist off Cambodia's shores -- with its larger, more powerful neighbor. Analysts say the country is growing in confidence now that Chinese and South Korean businesses have begun investing there, and it is less dependent on Thailand and its other large neighbor, Vietnam.

For his part, Mr. Thaksin now has the opportunity to use Cambodia as a base from which to organize his supporters across the border in Thailand, a prospect that alarms leaders in Bangkok, who are recovering from the impact of antigovernment riots in the city last April.

Thailand and Cambodia have withdrawn their ambassadors and on Thursday expelled a diplomat apiece as part of the escalating dispute.

Thailand this week filed an extradition request to Cambodia to hand over Mr. Thaksin for a corruption conviction. Mr. Hun Sen's government refused, saying the charges against Mr. Thaksin are politically motivated and a direct result of the 2006 military coup. Thailand is now moving to cancel an oil and gas exploration deal with Cambodia and has raised the prospect of partially closing its border because of the row over Mr. Thaksin.

Other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are struggling to contain their irritation with both sides ahead of their historic meeting with Mr. Obama Sunday on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Singapore.

"We in Asean cannot afford to be seen as being so seriously divided," Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who is Thai, said in a statement.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

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