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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Cambodian court tries Thai man for spying, intensifying dispute between Asian neighbors

By SOPHENG CHEANG , Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A Thai man went on trial Tuesday for allegedly spying on Thailand's former prime minister while he was in Cambodia as a guest of the government, a case that threatens to worsen a diplomatic feud between the two nations.

The trial in the capital of Phnom Penh follows Cambodia's decision last month to name former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra its special economic adviser. The appointment and Thaksin's subsequent visit to Cambodia angered the government in Bangkok and resulted in a recall of ambassadors from both sides.

Thai national Siwarak Chothipong, an employee of the Cambodia Air Traffic Service, which manages flights in the country, was accused of stealing Thaksin's flight schedule before his Nov. 10 arrival and sending it to the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh.

Thaksin stayed five days, getting red-carpet treatment as he talked to Cambodian economists.

Siwarak, 31, was arrested Nov. 12 and charged with stealing information that could impact national security. If found guilty, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

Siwarak acknowledged in Municipal Court that he saw the flight schedule and passed the details on to Thai embassy First Secretary Kamrob Palawatwichai who was later expelled from the country. But he denied stealing the document.

"I took a look at the flight schedule and made a phone call to Kamrob about the flight schedule," Siwarak told the court. "But I didn't get a copy of the flight schedule and hand it over to anyone."

Two other employees from the Cambodia Air Traffic Service testified that Siwarak asked them about the flight schedule.

Thaksin went into self-imposed exile last year before a Thai court found him guilty of violating a conflict of interest law and sentenced him to two years in prison. He had served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, when he was ousted in a military coup after being accused of corruption and showing disrespect to the monarchy.

Thaksin's supporters and opponents have repeatedly taken to the streets since then to spar over who has the right to rule the country, sometimes sparking violence.

Thaksin's visit to Cambodia led to allegations he was trying to ignite a new political crisis from across the border.

Critics, including Thailand's government, have portrayed Thaksin as a traitor for accepting the Cambodian appointment and have lambasted Cambodia for hosting him while he is a fugitive. Relations have already been roiled by several deadly skirmishes in the 1.5 years over land surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear temple.

Siwarak allegedly gave Thaksin's flight schedule to the Thai Embassy's first secretary, who was then ordered by Cambodia to leave the country for carrying out activities inconsistent with his official duties. Thailand responded by ordering out the first secretary of Cambodia's mission in Bangkok. The two countries already had recalled their ambassadors.

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