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Saturday, November 07, 2009

POLITICS: Thai-Cambodia Diplomatic Row Bares Decades-Long Rift

By Marwaan Macan-Markar


BANGKOK, Thailand’s swift and strong response to Cambodia’s decision to appoint ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser exposed an emotional faultline rooted in decades of mutual suspicion and hatred.

By the weekend, Bangkok had delivered its second blow to an already tense relationship between the two South-east Asian kingdoms. The Thai government announced it was revoking a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on developing an overlapping maritime area rich in oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand.

It was inevitable, said the Thai government, after Phnom Penh’s appointment of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and lives in exile to evade a two-year jail term after being found guilty in a conflict of interest case. Thaksin’s new role in Cambodia "will directly affect negotiations" between the two countries, states the Thai foreign ministry, since Thaksin "was directly involved in the negotiation process" in 2001 when he was Thailand’s prime minister.

The tone for such a tough response by the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was set on Thursday. Bangkok withdrew its ambassador in Cambodia in protest against the Thaksin appointment. Phnom Penh reciprocated by Friday.

"We view the appointment of Thaksin as an interference in Thailand’s domestic affairs and disregard for Thailand’s judicial system," Thani Thongphakdi, Thai foreign ministry’s deputy spokesman, told IPS. "Our reaction has been commensurate with the action of Cambodia."

Thaksin’s appointment as the new economic advisor to Cambodia was announced Wednesday night on the country’s state television station. He was appointed by a royal decree as a "personal advisor to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the adviser to the Cambodian government in charge of economy," a statement from Phnom Penh revealed.

Hun Sen’s choice of the fugitive former Thai premier, who became a billionaire telecommunications tycoon before he was elected as Thailand’s leader in 2001, is in keeping with a practice known in Cambodia for years— of the government and the royal family appointing foreign nationals to help them as advisors.

Prior to Thaksin, Hun Sen’s economic advisor was South Korea’s current president, Lee Myung-bak. The latter served in that advisory role from 2000 till 2007, resigning ahead of the 2008 presidential poll.

"Cambodia views the appointment of Mr. Thaksin as an internal affair. We have had economic advisors to our prime minister before, like the current president of South Korea from 2000 till 2007," said Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Cambodian foreign ministry. "The Thai government is trying to mix things up."

"It is up to the Thai side to clarify the status of our relationship," Koy added during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh. "Cambodia wants to have good relations with Thailand."

Hun Sen’s fiery rhetoric towards Thailand betrays such sentiments. He is on record saying that Phnom Penh would not extradite Thaksin if he moved to Cambodia. That followed a statement that Cambodia would offer Thaksin a new home.

The recent war of words between Cambodia and Thailand threatened to overshadow a summit of South-east Asian leaders held last month in a Thai resort town south of Bangkok. "Don’t allow anybody to use you as a pawn," Abhisit told the media in a comment targeted at Hun Sen.

The current tension between the two countries has grown since July last year over a 10th century Hindu temple, Preah Vihear, perched on top of a steep cliff on the Thai-Cambodian border.

The World Heritage Committee ruled that month that the Preah Vihear would be recognised as a world heritage site. It also recognised a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice that the temple was within Cambodian territory.

Thai nationalists responded with rage, prompting a troop build-up by both sides. In April this year the soldiers from both countries exchanged gunfire, leaving three people dead.

The relationship between the richer Thailand and the poorer Cambodia hit a low point in 2003, when the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was burned down by rioters angered by a remark made by a Thai actress that allegedly questioned Cambodia’s ownership of another landmark temple. Thaksin was the Thai premier at the time.

"What we are witnessing is the love-hate relationship between the Thai and Cambodians. The problem has deep roots, going back to the Second World War period," said Charnvit Kasetsri, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. "Anti-French feelings that Thais had towards the French when they were colonial rulers of Cambodia were transferred to anti-Cambodian feelings after Cambodia got independence."

Thailand’s elites also fed this feeling in later years, Charnvit explained in an interview. "Bangkok’s educated people look down upon Cambodians as less educated and people that cannot be trusted and are unreliable."

The United States government’s war in Indo-China saw the two countries on either side of the battle lines. The Thai government, under a military dictatorship and a strong U.S. ally, was peeved at Cambodia’s neutral stance over the war during the 1960s.

Through the 1980s, after Cambodians were freed from the genocidal Khmer Rouge by the invading Vietnamese military, Thailand opened its eastern borders for the Khmer Rouge to survive. Bangkok, in fact, was the gateway for Khmer Rouge leaders to interact with the international community. Cambodia’s present attitude towards Thailand, on the other hand, reflects a trend that has evolved over the past 20 years.

"For years Thailand was an important investor in Cambodia and was always welcome, but now its predominant role has been replaced by China, Japan and others," said Punagthong Pawakapan, assistant professor in international relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "They do not have to depend on Thailand unlike before."

China, with over 3,000 companies and with investments valued at over 1.5 billion U.S. dollars, is the largest investor in Cambodia. South Korea follows, with 1.2 billion dollars in investment. And Japan, with over 1.2 billion U.S. dollars, has been Cambodia’s top donor since 1992.

Thailand’s investments are valued at 226 million U.S. dollars. Its major investments are in hotels and the agro-industry. China has poured money into large infrastructure projects while South Korea has invested in the information technology sector.

"Thailand’s relationship with its other neighbours like Burma, Laos and Malaysia do not compare with the relationship with Cambodia," Punagthong told IPS. "Disagreements do not result in the same kind of tension and trouble."

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