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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thailand delays action on aid to Cambodia

By Pracha Hariraksapitak

BANGKOK, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Thailand on Tuesday held back on further action against Cambodia -- which caused a diplomatic row by offering a job to fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- and welcomed the access it was given to a Thai accused of spying.

"There is still plenty of time to consider (cutting aid and loans). There is no need to hurry," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting.

The latest row between the neigbouring countries flared when Thaksin went to Cambodia last week after its prime minister, Hun Sen, offered him a job as an economic adviser. The Cambodian government rejected Bangkok's request to extradite him.

The two countries recalled their ambassadors and Cambodia arrested a Thai engineer working for Cambodia Air Traffic Services, accusing him of sending Thaksin's flight schedule to a Thai diplomat, who was expelled by Phnom Penh.

The arrest caused further uproar in Thailand, especially as embassy officials were initially denied access to the engineer.

A visit was finally allowed on Tuesday.

"It is a positive move on Cambodia's part to allow our representative to visit him," Abhisit said. "This gives us hope. We will continue to seek legal counsel for now and we believe we will be informed of formal charges soon."

The Thai government says the information the engineer was accused of giving the diplomat was publicly available.


Earlier, Panitan Wattanayagorn, deputy secretary-general to Abhisit, said the cabinet could discuss various measures to be taken against Cambodia, including freezing low-interest loans to build roads.

Last week Thailand said it would scrap a 2001 memorandum of understanding on energy development in the Gulf of Thailand.

The agreement was signed under Thaksin's administration, with the aim of finding a way for the two countries to jointly develop oil and gas resources in disputed waters, although little progress has been made.

Thaksin left Cambodia on Saturday.

He spends most of his time in Dubai, having returned to self-imposed exile last year ahead of a court judgment that found him guilty of violating a conflict of interest law while in office and sentenced him to two years in jail.

After winning two landslide elections, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He remains at the heart of a bitter political struggle in Thailand which has at various stages over the past four years scared off tourists and dismayed investors. (For an analysis on Thaksin's strategy, click [ID:nBKK461030]) (Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jerry Norton)

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Hun Sen seeks to 'internationalise' spat

Thailand's domestic turmoil has been further complicated by the political tempest that blew through Bangkok from Phnom Penh last week. For the first time, the protracted Thai political crisis is no longer wholly domestic but has direct foreign bearings from next door.

In a flurry of seemingly orchestrated offensive manoeuvres, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has put the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on the back foot. Mr Hun Sen has achieved several objectives, whereas Mr Abhisit's government has yet to define what it wants out of the retaliatory spiral that has brought contemporary Thai-Cambodian relations to its nadir.

To be sure, Mr Hun Sen's deliberate provocation was designed and timed to rock the Abhisit government. It began with the Cambodian leader's invitation to. and warm reception of, Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's visit to Phnom Penh in mid-October. At that time, Mr Hun Sen expressed sympathy for convicted and exiled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, hinting the latter could find refuge in Cambodia.

At the Asean Summit in Cha-am a week later, Mr Hun Sen's second move was to follow through with statements to the media indicating that Thaksin should be made an adviser to the Cambodian government.

The Cambodian strongman then returned to Phnom Penh to officially appoint Thaksin as government adviser on the economy.

The fourth move was to invite Mr Thaksin to give a talk last week. All of these moves took place just prior to the Apec leaders' meeting and the inaugural Asean-US summit, which Mr Abhisit was to preside over as Asean chair.

The Abhisit government was behind Mr Hun Sen's curve balls throughout. It should have sent clearer and louder signals that avoided unnecessary ridicule, insult, condescension and sarcasm.

Instead, Mr Abhisit's press conference in Cha-am warned Mr Hun Sen not to be used as a pawn by Thaksin. If the Cambodian ambassador failed to show up when summoned by the Thai government, clear signals should have been sounded as well.

By the time Mr Hun Sen appointed Thaksin, the Abhisit government went ballistic when it should have been measured and nuanced. It could have recalled the Thai ambassador for consultations before sending him back to Phnom Penh.

The intensity and rapidity of Bangkok's level of responses, including the revocation of a memorandum of understanding on overlapping claims in the Gulf of Thailand and suspension of aid and soft loans, made the Abhisit government appear flustered and blustered.

Moreover, it reflected the Abhisit government's misguided estimation of Thailand's leverage over Cambodia and betrays its own shortcomings, which were discussed in detail in Mr Hun Sen's long interview last week.

Indeed, Mr Hun Sen has not been nice but he may have had his reasons for not being nice to Mr Abhisit's government. And there appears little the Thai leader can do about it.

Unlike bygone years, new geopolitical realities now mean Bangkok is merely one among many in the pecking order of importance to Cambodia. China, Vietnam, Russia, Japan, and even South Korea have been instrumental players in Cambodia's economic development. The Thai government needs to accept Cambodia's status as an up-and-coming emerging economy after decades of war, conflict and tragedy, with more than its fair share of natural resources that beckons partners near and far, and relative political stability alongside democratic legitimacy to boot.

On the other hand, Mr Hun Sen has been pent up on a number of old scores, as his interview revealed. The Cambodian leader was miffed, of course, when Mr Abhisit appointed a foreign minister who publicly called him a gangster on a nationalist stage where Mr Hun Sen was a ping-pong ball. Mr Abhisit's misjudgement on his foreign minister choice, owing to his own miscalculation and/or pressure from his backers, doomed Thai-Cambodian relations from the outset.

Moreover, Mr Hun Sen viewed the Abhisit government's reneging on Cambodia's registration of Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage Site as back-stabbing following Mr Abhisit's personal assurance that it could be discussed. The Abhisit government did little to rein in right-wing groups from demonstrating at Preah Vihear areas, some even demanding the return of the temple which belongs to Cambodia by international law.

The bilateral atmosphere was further poisoned by the Abhisit government's allowing Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader in Cambodian politics, to use a forum in Bangkok to attack Mr Hun Sen.

With the expulsion of a Thai diplomat and the arrest of a Thai engineer on spying charges, Mr Hun Sen has not flinched in the face of Thai retaliation. While he is settling old scores, Mr Hun Sen's persistence of harassment and taking sides in Thailand's deep-seated polarisation by allowing Thaksin to use Cambodia as a staging ground, would suggest that Phnom Penh is intent on carrying out this bilateral spat to its logical conclusion in regionalising and internationalising the Thai-Cambodian conflict.

Mr Hun Sen would have an edge not in bilateral dealings but in regional and international considerations, especially if the Abhisit government ratchets up retaliation and ends up with overreaction.

Mr Abhisit must now own up to his misjudgements.

A cabinet reshuffle is imperative. He should treat Mr Hun Sen with respect and appeal for Cambodia to stay out of Thai affairs like other countries, such as the United Kingdom and China, have done.

Most important, Mr Abhisit must come up with an overarching policy objective in order to locate and shape the political and diplomatic tools to achieve it. That objective should be to persuade Mr Hun Sen to not let Thaksin use Cambodian soil as his launch pad to battle his opponents.
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Cambodia won't drop spy charges

Military tries personal appeal to free engineer

Thailand's hopes of a quick release for Sivarak Chutipong have been dashed.

Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh said the alleged spy will not be freed any time soon.

In a phone interview with the Bangkok Post, Gen Tea Banh said legal proceedings against the Thai engineer must be allowed to run their course.

Thai military chiefs, including Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, are using their communications channels with Gen Tea Banh to try and help the government secure the release of the Cambodia Air Traffic Services engineer who is being detained in Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison.

They hoped the general would convince Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow his release.
"I told them I am sorry but that it is not possible," Gen Tea Banh said. "Lawbreakers must face legal proceedings first. They must face investigations and will be taken to court. They cannot be let off scot-free.

"I don't know what to do. The law is there and Cambodia must stick to the law ... the judicial proceedings must be allowed to take their course. It's impossible to release him [Mr Sivarak] straight away."

Gen Tea Banh said Cambodian authorities had questioned Mr Sivarak and found allegations he illegally obtained information about fugitive former primer minister Thaksin Shinawatra's flight schedule had grounds.

Mr Sivarak was arrested on Thursday for allegedly obtaining confidential information about Thaksin's flight details and supplying it to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian government expelled the Thai embassy's first secretary Kamrob Palawatwichai in response.

Both Mr Sivarak and the Thai Foreign Ministry denied the allegations.

Mr Sivarak has not yet been formally charged, said Thani Thongphakdi, deputy spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

After blocking several attempts to meet the detained Thai, Cambodian authorities yesterday allowed Chalotorn Phaovibul - the highest ranking diplomat at the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh - and two other staff to visit Mr Sivarak for 30 minutes.

"He is in good condition and good spirits. He is also being well taken care of by Cambodian authorities," the deputy spokesman quoted Mr Chalotorn as saying.

Mr Chalotorn has been in charge of the Thai embassy since ambassador Prasas Prasasvinitchai was recalled in protest over Phnom Penh's appointment of Thaksin as an economic adviser.

Mr Sivarak spoke with his mother, Simarak na Nakhon Phanom, in Nakhon Ratchasima by phone after being given permission by prison authorities.

Mrs Simarak, who works at Nakhon Ratchasima Technical College, said she was happy to speak to her son for the first time since his arrest and to learn that he was safe.

She appealed to the government to quickly secure her son's release.

The deputy director-general of the Consular Affairs Department, Madurapochana Ittarong, yesterday visited Mrs Simarak in the northeastern province and offered to help her arrange a visit to see Mr Sivarak in Phnom Penh.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva applauded Cambodia's decision to allow Thai diplomats to visit Mr Sivarak in prison in accordance with international standards.

Mr Abhisit told Mrs Simarak the government would try its best to secure his release as soon as possible.

"The government hopes he will be released soon following proper legal procedures," Mr Abhisit said.

Thaksin said on, his internet channel, that he had contacted the Cambodian government and asked it to ensure the engineer receives a fair trial.

"If there is anything I can do to help, I'll do it even though it [the charge] is real," he said.

The recent deterioration in Thai-Cambodian relations started last month when Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as an economic adviser to his government. Tensions increased when Cambodia rejected Thai requests that Thaksin be extradited.

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