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Monday, December 14, 2009

Thaksin Back in Cambodia to See Release of Thai Man Held for Spying


With Thailand’s fugitive former prime minister standing by, Cambodia on Monday released a Thai citizen convicted of spying, in what Thaksin Shinawatra has called a Thai plot to kill him.

Mr. Thaksin arrived in Cambodia on Sunday for the second time in a month, an appearance that seemed to be a calculated insult to his own nation. This time he presented himself as a mediator, meeting with his countryman as he was released from prison.

The Thai citizen, Sivarak Chutipong, 31, worked for a Thai air services company in Phnom Penh and was sentenced to seven years in prison last week after passing on to his embassy the flight details of Mr. Thaksin’s earlier visit to Cambodia on Nov. 10.

Mr. Sivarak was pardoned Friday by King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia. Mr. Thaksin claimed that Mr. Sivarak had been part of a plan by Thailand to shoot down his plane.

During that first visit, Cambodia rejected a request by Thailand for Mr. Thaksin’s extradition, intensifying tensions between the two unfriendly neighbors. Thailand and Cambodia have both withdrawn their ambassadors and first secretaries in a sign of deteriorating relations.

For more than a year, both nations have stationed troops at a disputed temple on their border, and brief firefights have taken several lives.

Mr. Thaksin was convicted last year of corruption and abuse of power during his tenure as prime minister. He was ousted in a coup in 2006 but has continued to rally his supporters with speeches and defiant gestures like his trips to Cambodia.

As The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper, put it in a front-page caption on Monday, “The man who set off the Thai-Cambodian diplomatic crisis goes gleefully back to Phnom Penh yesterday to, ironically, oversee the release of a man he claimed was part of a plot to kill him.” Cambodia’s minister of information, Khieu Kanharith, said that Mr. Thaksin had telephoned Prime Minister Hun Sen requesting the release.

Along with the caption, The Nation printed photographs of Mr. Thaksin grinning as he stepped down from an aircraft Sunday and sitting with Mr. Sivarak with Cambodian flags displayed in front and behind him.

It was a complicated image, associating Mr. Thaksin with the release of a fellow citizen but also with the nation that had arrested him, setting off a new wave of nationalist anger in Thailand.

Mr. Hun Sen has stoked this anger with antagonistic statements directed at the Thai government, which Mr. Thaksin’s supporters say they want to topple.

“Cambodia will have no happiness as long as this group is in power in Thailand,” Mr. Hun Sen said earlier this month.

Underscoring that political bias, Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Cambodian Council of Ministers, said the government was to receive a delegation of four members of Thailand’s Puea Thai party, which supports Mr. Thaksin.

“This is to show the good atmosphere and the good ties between the Puea Thai party and the Cambodian government,” Phal Chandara, a government lawyer, told The Phnom Penh Post.

Thai officials said they would renew their demand for Mr. Thaksin’s extradition. Mr. Hun Sen has invited him to visit as an “economic adviser,” and officials said that Mr. Thaksin planned to give seminars about the economy while he is there. On his last visit he stayed five days.

In Bangkok on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said it would be difficult to restore good relations if Cambodia continued to refuse to extradite Mr. Thaksin.

“I’m deeply concerned if Cambodia refuses to extradite Thaksin, because I don’t know how to continue relations between the two countries,” he said.

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