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Thailand & Cambodia Argue About Thaksin & the Coup

Thailand and Cambodia Argue About Thaksin & the Coup

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand and Cambodia have descended into a loud political feud about Bangkok's 2006 coup, and Thailand's current threat to demand the extradition of its fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The rift between the two Buddhist-majority nations in the heart of Southeast Asia was expected to worsen if Mr. Thaksin accepts Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's surprise offer of a temporary house.

"There is an extradition process," warned Thailand's powerful Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban on Tuesday (October 27).

"The turmoil following Cambodian leader Hun Sen's remarks, about ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra being welcome in his country, has thrown the government into a spin," the Bangkok Post newspaper, which opposes Mr. Thaksin, reported on Tuesday (October 27).

Ratcheting up his rhetoric, Mr. Hun Sen compared Mr. Thaksin to Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has languished under house arrest in Rangoon for 14 years.

"Many people are talking about Mrs. Suu Kyi of Burma. Why can't I talk about the victim, Thaksin?" Mr. Hun Sen said on October 23.

"That cannot be regarded as interference by Cambodia into Thai internal affairs. Without the coup d'etat in 2006, such a thing would not have happened," Hun Sen said.

Soft-spoken Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lashed out Mr. Hun Sen's remarks.

"There are few people in the world who believe Thaksin is similar to that of Mr. Suu Kyi," Mr. Abhisit said later that day.

"I hope Prime Minister Hun Sen will receive the right information and change his mind on the matter."

Cambodia's government spokesman Phay Siphan said on October 23: "Cambodia has a right to offer Thaksin to visit Cambodia, and we have no obligation to send him back to Thailand."

If "former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra wishes to travel to Cambodia anytime...the Cambodian prime minister is ready to prepare a residence for [his] stay in Cambodia," reported Cambodia's government-run TVK television on October 22, according to Agence-France Presse.

Mr. Thaksin has been an international fugitive, based mostly in Dubai, dodging a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest.

That conviction involved a Bangkok real estate deal -- for his now divorced wife -- which was arranged when he was prime minister.

Mr. Thaksin became prime minister in 2001 when most voters elected the billionaire telecommunications tycoon, hoping he would boost the economy and modernize Thailand.

Mr. Thaksin was removed in September 2006 by Thailand's U.S.-trained military in a bloodless coup when they used tanks, armored personnel carriers, Humvees and other weapons to seize power.

He has unsuccessfully tried to return to power with the help of allied politicians, and get back his two billion U.S. dollars worth of assets which the coup leaders froze.

International human rights groups, however, want Mr. Thaksin investigated for his role in the alleged extrajudicial murder of more than 2,000 people during his government's "war on drugs."

Mr. Thaksin remains politically active in self-exile.

He helps lead a mass movement of so-called "Red Shirts" who claim to represent Thailand's majority lower classes, especially in the countryside.

Together they demand an immediate election, expecting Mr. Thaksin's allies to win.

They are opposed by the "Yellow Shirts" who claim to support Thailand's urban middle class and constitutional monarchy.

Led by Sondhi Limthongkul, the Yellow Shirts blockaded Bangkok's international and domestic airports in November 2008 for eight days, stranding more than 300,000 people worldwide.

Their blockade helped weaken a government allied to Mr. Thaksin, and paved the way for Parliament to elect Mr. Abhisit.

Mr. Abhisit's fragile coalition government enjoys the military's support, and much of his personal security is handled by the military.

Thailand's wealthy elite have mostly thrown their weight behind Mr. Abhisit as well, and appear nervous about Mr. Thaksin and the Red Shirts plotting to destabilize Bangkok.

Cambodia's prime minister has thrown a wild card into this dangerous mix, apparently hoping to attract big investments by Mr. Thaksin and weaken Bangkok's strategy over a smoldering border dispute, according to some analysts.

"It is true that I would invite former Prime Minister Thaksin to visit Cambodia anytime, and to be my economic advisor," Mr. Hun Sen said on October 22.

Thailand and Cambodia are former war-time enemies -- and current investment partners -- so the stakes are high for all sides to quell their public sniping.

Occasional killings on both sides have continued in and around the ancient stone ruins of Preah Vihear, a Hindu temple on the Thai-Cambodian border.

That dispute dates back to the 1950s, and continued even after the International Court in the Hague, Netherlands, confirmed Cambodia's ownership in 1962.

The conflict flared again after the ruins were declared a World Heritage Site in July 2008 by the World Heritage Committee, based on Cambodia's proposal to cash in on its tourism potential.

Thailand and Cambodia have suffered much worse relations in the past.

After Richard Nixon became president of the United States in 1969, he used Thailand as one of several military staging areas for heavy aerial bombing raids against communists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, until America's wars ended in 1975 -- one year after Nixon's presidency -- with the U.S. defeated in all three countries.

Washington and Bangkok later indirectly backed Cambodia's communist Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, when his jungle-based guerrillas were in a loose alliance with other Cambodian rebels fighting against Vietnam's 1979-1989 occupation of Cambodia.

Thai and Cambodian politicians have been fleeing to each other's country for the past 50 years, seeking sanctuary from coups, arrest warrants, and other threats.

In 1957, when Thai dictator Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat unleashed a military coup against Prime Minister Phibun Songkram, the toppled leader fled Thailand for Cambodia in his Ford Thunderbird car.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

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