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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hun Sen seeks to 'internationalise' spat

Thailand's domestic turmoil has been further complicated by the political tempest that blew through Bangkok from Phnom Penh last week. For the first time, the protracted Thai political crisis is no longer wholly domestic but has direct foreign bearings from next door.

In a flurry of seemingly orchestrated offensive manoeuvres, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has put the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on the back foot. Mr Hun Sen has achieved several objectives, whereas Mr Abhisit's government has yet to define what it wants out of the retaliatory spiral that has brought contemporary Thai-Cambodian relations to its nadir.

To be sure, Mr Hun Sen's deliberate provocation was designed and timed to rock the Abhisit government. It began with the Cambodian leader's invitation to. and warm reception of, Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's visit to Phnom Penh in mid-October. At that time, Mr Hun Sen expressed sympathy for convicted and exiled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, hinting the latter could find refuge in Cambodia.

At the Asean Summit in Cha-am a week later, Mr Hun Sen's second move was to follow through with statements to the media indicating that Thaksin should be made an adviser to the Cambodian government.

The Cambodian strongman then returned to Phnom Penh to officially appoint Thaksin as government adviser on the economy.

The fourth move was to invite Mr Thaksin to give a talk last week. All of these moves took place just prior to the Apec leaders' meeting and the inaugural Asean-US summit, which Mr Abhisit was to preside over as Asean chair.

The Abhisit government was behind Mr Hun Sen's curve balls throughout. It should have sent clearer and louder signals that avoided unnecessary ridicule, insult, condescension and sarcasm.

Instead, Mr Abhisit's press conference in Cha-am warned Mr Hun Sen not to be used as a pawn by Thaksin. If the Cambodian ambassador failed to show up when summoned by the Thai government, clear signals should have been sounded as well.

By the time Mr Hun Sen appointed Thaksin, the Abhisit government went ballistic when it should have been measured and nuanced. It could have recalled the Thai ambassador for consultations before sending him back to Phnom Penh.

The intensity and rapidity of Bangkok's level of responses, including the revocation of a memorandum of understanding on overlapping claims in the Gulf of Thailand and suspension of aid and soft loans, made the Abhisit government appear flustered and blustered.

Moreover, it reflected the Abhisit government's misguided estimation of Thailand's leverage over Cambodia and betrays its own shortcomings, which were discussed in detail in Mr Hun Sen's long interview last week.

Indeed, Mr Hun Sen has not been nice but he may have had his reasons for not being nice to Mr Abhisit's government. And there appears little the Thai leader can do about it.

Unlike bygone years, new geopolitical realities now mean Bangkok is merely one among many in the pecking order of importance to Cambodia. China, Vietnam, Russia, Japan, and even South Korea have been instrumental players in Cambodia's economic development. The Thai government needs to accept Cambodia's status as an up-and-coming emerging economy after decades of war, conflict and tragedy, with more than its fair share of natural resources that beckons partners near and far, and relative political stability alongside democratic legitimacy to boot.

On the other hand, Mr Hun Sen has been pent up on a number of old scores, as his interview revealed. The Cambodian leader was miffed, of course, when Mr Abhisit appointed a foreign minister who publicly called him a gangster on a nationalist stage where Mr Hun Sen was a ping-pong ball. Mr Abhisit's misjudgement on his foreign minister choice, owing to his own miscalculation and/or pressure from his backers, doomed Thai-Cambodian relations from the outset.

Moreover, Mr Hun Sen viewed the Abhisit government's reneging on Cambodia's registration of Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage Site as back-stabbing following Mr Abhisit's personal assurance that it could be discussed. The Abhisit government did little to rein in right-wing groups from demonstrating at Preah Vihear areas, some even demanding the return of the temple which belongs to Cambodia by international law.

The bilateral atmosphere was further poisoned by the Abhisit government's allowing Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader in Cambodian politics, to use a forum in Bangkok to attack Mr Hun Sen.

With the expulsion of a Thai diplomat and the arrest of a Thai engineer on spying charges, Mr Hun Sen has not flinched in the face of Thai retaliation. While he is settling old scores, Mr Hun Sen's persistence of harassment and taking sides in Thailand's deep-seated polarisation by allowing Thaksin to use Cambodia as a staging ground, would suggest that Phnom Penh is intent on carrying out this bilateral spat to its logical conclusion in regionalising and internationalising the Thai-Cambodian conflict.

Mr Hun Sen would have an edge not in bilateral dealings but in regional and international considerations, especially if the Abhisit government ratchets up retaliation and ends up with overreaction.

Mr Abhisit must now own up to his misjudgements.

A cabinet reshuffle is imperative. He should treat Mr Hun Sen with respect and appeal for Cambodia to stay out of Thai affairs like other countries, such as the United Kingdom and China, have done.

Most important, Mr Abhisit must come up with an overarching policy objective in order to locate and shape the political and diplomatic tools to achieve it. That objective should be to persuade Mr Hun Sen to not let Thaksin use Cambodian soil as his launch pad to battle his opponents.

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