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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hun Sen must cool this feud

The farcical episode of the Thai "spy" in Cambodia is over today. Sivarak Chutipong, sentenced to seven years by a Phnom Penh court and then just as quickly pardoned, is to return to Thailand accompanied by Puea Thai MPs after being farewelled by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

He loses his job at the air-controller firm in Cambodia, but regains his freedom after weeks in the squalid Prey Sar prison. It seems likely, however, that the equally squalid crisis in Thai-Cambodian relations engineered by Prime Minister Hun Sen may still continue, and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva must consider his options carefully.

Sivarak was a classic version of a bystander caught up in a whirlwind of events. His alleged crime was not much more than doing his job, which was to keep track of aircraft into and out of Pochentong airport on the edge of Phnom Penh. He worked for Cambodia Air Transport Services, a Thai-owned firm despite the name. He knew the arrival details of the flight into Cambodia by Thaksin. Apparently, when asked, he gave those flight details to a senior Thai diplomat, embassy first secretary Kamrob Palawatwichai. Hun Sen or one of his supporters blew that harmless exchange of information into a diplomatic incident - Mr Kamrob was expelled - and Sivarak's show trial.

The scripted verdict and pardon of Sivarak closes the chapter but not the book. Hun Sen remains at loggerheads with Mr Abhisit, and perhaps even more with Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. The Sivarak trial and the expulsion of Mr Kamrob allowed the Puea Thai Party to get some credit and, just as importantly, shut Thai diplomats and the government out of the equation.

Mr Abhisit and Mr Kasit, correctly, have refused to escalate the dispute engineered by Hun Sen. But the simmering state of affairs between the two governments is harmful to relations and puts several Asean agreements at risk. Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan has officially opted out of the dispute, saying the group will neither take sides nor attempt to negotiate an easing of relations. Another half-cocked move by Hun Sen or a mistake by border troops could even risk violence.

Mr Abhisit never has been clear why he chose Mr Kasit as foreign minister early this year. Mr Kasit was a key supporter, a fervent speaker and an unrepentant apologist for the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). At his worst moments, the minister personally attacked Hun Sen, and even attempted to defend the indefensible seizure of the two Bangkok airports late last year. He has been called ''the minister from the PAD'', and there have been frequent calls for his dismissal by the opposition.

Mr Kasit should consider his personal options against the national interest. He might conclude that a more politically neutral foreign minister could help the country at this juncture. Foreign governments, most especially Hun Sen's Cambodia, cannot have a say in the make-up of the Thai government. At the same time, Mr Kasit is an unelected minister, and the needs of the country are far more important than any cabinet member.

Hun Sen in any case can be expected to keep up his unreasonable vendetta against the Thai government. The Cambodian leader should know that Mr Abhisit played no part in the coup that ousted Thaksin. Instead of standing back in embarrassed silence, Mr Surin and other Asean leaders should stress this to him. Hun Sen should stop trying to interfere in Thai politics and resume conducting foreign policy, with Thailand and others, in a professional manner.

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