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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hun Sen vows to aid jailed Thais

Maritime issues also raised on Yingluck visit

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised to find ways for the early release of two Thais serving prison terms in Phnom Penh to reinforce vastly improving ties between the two countries.

The Cambodian leader pledged to help Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipatanapaiboon during a meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was on a one-day visit to Phnom Penh.

Her trip will be followed by a high-profile visit to Cambodia today by her brother and deposed prime minister Thaksin.

Ms Yingluck quoted Hun Sen as saying that he would find a way to reduce the sentences of the coordinator of the Thai Patriots Network and his secretary so that both could seek a royal pardon earlier than scheduled.

The meeting went smoothly and was the opening of "a new chapter" in relations between Thailand and Cambodia, she said.

The Phnom Penh Municipality Court in February jailed Veera for eight years for spying, crossing the border and illegally entering a military base in December.

Ratree was sentenced to six years for the same offences.

They were arrested when the Democrat Party, led by then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, governed the country.

Relations between Thailand and Cambodia turned after the Democrats were defeated in the July general elections.

The previous government was at odds with the neighbouring country over the Preah Vihear temple issue, with Thailand opposing a joint management plan for the temple. The conflicts led to armed border conflicts which plunged ties to a new low.

Hun Sen's gesture also came as a surprise given that Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong had said hours earlier that Veera and Ratree must serve out at least two-thirds of their sentences before being considered for parole.

Mr Abhisit defended the Democrat-led administration's handling of Veera and Ratree cases, saying his government had made its best effort. Phnom Penh had insisted on the two activists staying in jail in accordance with Cambodian laws first.

"We tried to seek a royal pardon," Abhisit said. "But Hun Sen said the government could not intervene in the judicial system.

"We raised the case of Sivarak Chutipong, but Hun Sen insisted that he did not want to make a second mistake."

Hun Sen had requested a royal pardon for Mr Sivarak, a Thai engineer accused of stealing flight information pertaining to Thaksin, who was then an adviser to the Cambodian government and Hun Sen.

Mr Sivarak was sentenced to seven years in prison, but freed after serving a month in prison apparently due to a request by Thaksin.

Ms Yingluck and Hun Sen also agreed to resume negotiating a plan for joint development of overlapping maritime claims in the Gulf of Thailand based on a Memorandum of Understanding in 2001.

Ms Yingluck promised transparency in the negotiations on the issue which has at stake oil and gas reserves.

Mr Abhisit said Thailand and Cambodia could not avoid talks about oil and natural gas reserves in the disputed waters. He said a core issue would be the framework for negotiations, adding the public should scrutinise the government to ensure it is acting in the country's best interest.

The prime ministers agreed to "redeploy troops" away from the disputed area near the temple, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said.

The Hague-based International Court of Justice in July asked both nations to withdraw military personnel from around the Preah Vihear temple complex, but neither side has pulled out yet, though the border has been calm.

Hor Namhong said the redeployment of troops would require observers from Indonesia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc.

Ms Yingluck said details of the issue will be thrashed out in a meeting of the General Border Committee chaired by the two country's defence ministers. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.

The two leaders also agreed to pursue joint infrastructure projects, including building roads linking the two countries and opening a new border checkpoint at Ban Nong Iean in the Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province to boost trade ties.

Ms Yingluck and her delegation, which included Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, received a red carpet welcome from the Cambodian government. Students and Cambodian citizens lined up along the roads from Pochentong International Airport waving Thai flags to the city where she held talks with Hun Sen and later paid a courtesy call on King Norodom Sihamoni at the Royal Palace.

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