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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Thai jailed in Cambodia over Thaksin flight leak

By Ek Madra

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Thai engineer was jailed in Cambodia for seven years for spying on Tuesday after he obtained flight details of fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a ruling likely to prolong a bitter row between the two countries.

The court said Siwarak Chutipongse, 31, had breached national security when he leaked the flight details to Thai diplomats ahead of Thaksin's visit to Cambodia last month.

Thaksin, who lives in exile after skipping bail last year ahead of a prison sentence for graft, caused a diplomatic uproar when he visited Cambodia to begin work as an economic adviser to its government.

The move was widely dismissed as a publicity stunt staged by Thaksin and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to boost the billionaire's profile and discredit the Thai government.

"Thaksin is Cambodia's adviser, so the government of Cambodia has an obligation to protect his life," Judge Ke Sakhan said in reading the verdict. "If anything happens to him, we would be blamed and that could lead to rocky relations with Thailand."

Siwarak denied leaking the information and said he obtained the flight details because he wanted to know when his former prime minister would arrive.


Chavanond Intarakomalasut, a senior Thai Foreign Ministry official, told reporters in Bangkok that the government would submit a formal request for Siriwak's pardon if he chose not to appeal.

His arrest on November 10 prompted Cambodia to take temporary control of Thai-operated Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS) and suspend all Thai expatriates at the company.

The ruling is likely to ramp up diplomatic tensions that reached boiling point when Cambodia refused to extradite Thaksin or recognise his conviction on the grounds that he was a victim of a vendetta by his political rivals.

The extradition snub and Cambodia's offer of a home and a job to Thaksin led to the recall and expulsion of diplomats and the freezing of bilateral agreements, including a pact to jointly develop untapped energy reserves in the Gulf of Thailand.

The downgrade of diplomatic ties has prompted concerns about a possible military confrontation along their disputed frontier and fears the border would be closed. Neither has happened.

If the border was closed, traders say Thailand's economy would suffer most because Cambodia imports more goods from Thailand, which relies on its neighbour for just 0.05 percent of total imports.

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