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Monday, November 30, 2009

Thaksin and Chavalit's Cambodia plan badly misfired

By Avudh Panananda
The Nation



After their best-laid plan went awry, two cunning schemers now find themselves left high and dry. Thaksin Shinawatra and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh have fallen off the political stage.

Until the two can come up with a new ploy to reclaim pole position, the role of playmaker has now been taken up by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

In the next couple of months, Abhisit has a rare opportunity to rectify ailing politics. If he succeeds in his mission, then there is a glimmer of hope for overcoming Thaksin's gravitational pull.

Just a few short months ago, Thaksin and Chavalit acted and talked like they already had the world in the palms of their hands.

Chavalit stepped out of retirement to accept the Pheu Thai Party chairmanship. He confidently outlined his game plan designed to boost Thaksin's political standing.

He believed that he could overcome political polarisation if the pro-Thaksin camp could outshine the Democrat-led coalition.

Thaksin pulled strings with the red shirts and opposition lawmakers in order to orchestrate a showdown to dislodge the coalition.

It so happened that Thaksin and Chavalit found Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen with a receptive ear to get involved in Thai politics and risk the good neighbourly ties.

Under the plan, the involvement of Hun Sen in the Thai political equation was supposed to be proof of Thaksin's superiority over Abhisit. But the plan backfired.

Friends and foes alike saw Thaksin and Chavalit as traitors, serving as Cambodian lapdogs instead of protecting Thai interests.

The very plan designed to destroy the prime minister yielded the opposite result. Abhisit received an all-time-high popularity rating.

Regardless of his experience as the longest-serving prime minister in Southeast Asia, Hun Sen picked two wrong horses to stage an entrance into the Thai political scene.

The Cambodian government had to switch on damage-control mode by dispatching Defence Minister Tea Banh, seen as Hun Sen's closest ally, to Bangkok on a fence-mending mission last week.

The pro-Thaksin camp fell into disarray. Chalerm Yoobamrung, the leader of the Pheu Thai MPs, became "conveniently" ill so he could sit on the fence and watch how the game played out.

Although some 30 Pheu Thai MPs and hardcore supporters went to meet Thaksin in Siem Reap, much greater numbers of opposition lawmakers followed Chalerm's lead to keep their cards close to their chest.

Even Chavalit tried to salvage his image by back-pedalling from Thaksin's Cambodian card. He turned down Thaksin's offer for him to fly to Phnom Penh to pick up the Thai engineer who is expected to be released from the legal wrangling for spying.

As if adding insult to his own injury, Thaksin made controversial and offensive remarks against the monarchy when he tried to apportion the blame for his predicament.

It came as no surprise that the red shirts were forced to postpone their mass rally, billed as a final showdown with the government. Thaksin is doing everything he can to win back trust in his loyalty.

As Thaksin and Chavalit will likely spend months trying to pick up the pieces of their own undoing, the limelight has shifted to Abhisit.

With the lull in street protests, Abhisit now has a fighting chance to steer mainstream politics to overcome the turmoil.

The key is how to accommodate and appease opposition lawmakers in order to stop them from gravitating toward Thaksin.

Three key events may be the decisive factors in reshaping Thai politics. The anticipated Cabinet reshuffle. The upcoming censure debate. And the twisting and turning of the process to amend the charter.

If Abhisit plays his cards right, then voters will likely go to the polls next year. The polarisation may not end completely with one round of voting, but at least the animosity is likely to dissipate.

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