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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Thai-Cambodia ties on the mend, but Thaksin casts a shadow

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on Thursday. REUTERS

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun | Today Online
09:01 AM Sep 17, 2011

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ended her first visit to Cambodia on Thursday. Her brother, the self-exiled former Premier Thaksin - still considered by supporters as Thailand's "real" Prime Minister - arrived in Phnom Penh just one day after Ms Yingluck's trip.

The twin visits to Cambodia by the Shinawatras have received much publicity in both countries and in the region. This is because they signal a sea-change in Thai policy toward Cambodia which could lead to rapid progress in bilateral ties.

These ties were severely damaged by the so-called Thai nationalists, mostly from the yellow-shirt People Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who had politicised the issues in Thai-Cambodian relations in order to undermine the pro-Thaksin regime in the past. The previous government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, with a foreign minister who was opposed to Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, also had a large part in sustaining the neighbourly animosity.

Ms Yingluck returned home after a productive discussion with her counterpart, Mr Hun Sen, especially on the issue of the withdrawal of troops in the disputed areas surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple. Ms Yingluck and Mr Hun Sen agreed to allow an Indonesian monitoring team to witness the redeployment of their troops - a win-win for Thailand, Cambodia and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It was not revealed whether the two leaders also addressed the issue of oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Thailand where both countries have long engaged in a boundary dispute. But it was almost certain that both premiers would aim to proceed with joint development, rather than begin the demarcation of the maritime border which would be an uphill task.

As for a request to release two Thais from the anti-Thaksin Patriots Network charged last December with espionage and illegal entry, the Cambodian Government made it clear that both would have to serve at least two thirds of their eight-year sentences. Ms Yingluck's offer to negotiate with Cambodia for their release was meant to send a strong message that her government was willing to help its domestic political enemies walk free from a Phnom Penh jail.

Yesterday, Thaksin took his turn to visit Phnom Penh. He holds no official position in Ms Yingluck's government, but has acted as if he was serving in the Thai cabinet. He has claimed that his visit was to assist in rebuilding trust and friendship with Cambodia. Apart from meeting with Mr Hun Sen, he is planning to play golf in Siem Reap and take part in a football match between red-shirt members and Cambodian footballers.

Thaksin's presence in Cambodia will definitely irritate his opponents in Bangkok, and could therefore complicate the work of Ms Yingluck's government in the rapprochement with Cambodia.

Wanted under Thai law on corruption charges, his appearance so close to home is a slap in the face for the traditional elites who have made efforts to block his entry to many foreign countries. The warm Cambodian hospitality will have boosted Thaksin's confidence to make his case to the world that he was in fact a legitimate leader overthrown by a military coup.

As a result, his visit could open the door for the Thai elites to strike back at Ms Yingluck's administration. When he was appointed as an economic advisor to the Cambodian government in 2009, then Prime Minister Abhisit had cut Thailand's relations with Cambodia.

Now, the back-to-back visits may raise concerns among anti-government factions about possible private deals on oil and gas investments between Thaksin and certain influential personalities in Cambodia. And while Ms Yingluck did not meet up with her brother in Phnom Penh, his rush to arrive in Cambodia unfortunately eclipsed his sister's official visit.

Finally, the fact that Mr Hun Sen rolled out the red carpet for the Shinawatras, including organising a football game, underscores the fact that Cambodia is dabbling in the Thai domestic political game - and apparently with the Yingluck government's blessing. It used to be the other way round - Thailand intervening in Cambodian politics since the peak of the Cold War.

It remains to be seen if Ms Yingluck's trip to Cambodia would help heal the deep wound in Thai-Cambodian relations in the long run. There are many contentious issues, worsened by the distortion of history and the misuse of nationalism on both sides.

Ms Yingluck will have to try harder if she wants to seriously improve her country's relations with Cambodia. But she must do this without Thaksin standing in the background.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun
is a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

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