Latest Pawn in the Thai-Cambodian Spat? Thaksin

Latest Pawn in the Thai-Cambodian Spat? Thaksin

The naming of an honorary economic advisor to a small Southeast Asian
country doesn’t usually make news. But Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s
designation of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as his
financial mentor on Wednesday has sparked an international ruckus, with both countries
trading trans-border barbs and recalling their respective ambassadors.

Confused Here’s the background. After Thaksin was deposed in a 2006
bloodless military coup and sentenced in absentia to two years’ imprisonment
for a conflict of interest conviction — a verdict he disputes — the exiled
billionaire tycoon maintained some friends in high places. One of those
mates is Hun Sen, the quixotic Cambodian Prime Minister. The current Thai
government is fiercely allergic to Thaksin — and Hun Sen’s move last month to
offer refuge to the controversial former leader drew strenuous criticism
from Bangkok, both from government and local press circles.

But the Cambodian government didn’t back down. Earlier this week, the Cambodian Ambassador to Thailand wrote an angry letter to the Nation, after the Thai daily published an editorial criticizing Hun’s Sen’s offer of refuge. The Cambodia emissary accused the Nation of having become a “vulgar newspaper [that has] lost its value as a newspaper of a civilized country.” Just when tensions looked set to dissipate, Hun Sen announced on Nov. 4 that
he was appointing a certain Thai as his economic advisor. Thaksin’s
conviction by a Thai court, opined Cambodian state T.V., was “politically
motivated.” The former Premier responded by announcing that he would be delighted to
accept the position in order to keep “my brain sharp” — although he cautioned
that the honorary position wouldn’t be as fun as “working to help Thai
people out of poverty.”

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs struck back quickly, releasing a
statement characterizing Hun Sen’s appointment “as [an] interference in
Thailand’s domestic affairs [that] puts personal interest and relations
before the national interests of the two countries.” The country’s Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva echoed the dissatisfaction: “The announcement by
the Cambodian government harmed the Thai justice system and really affected
Thai public sentiment.”

The spat might be dismissed as a silly diplomatic row, but fatal battles
between Thailand and Cambodia have been fought over other seemingly minor
issues. Relations between the two neighbors have deteriorated markedly since
last year because of a territorial dispute surrounding an ancient temple
complex on their border. After weeks of nationalist rhetoric, the ill
feeling over the Preah Viheah temple region culminated in gunfire, with a
handful of soldiers killed in skirmishes. Attempts to dial down tensions
have been viewed as cowardly acquiescence by some members of populaces
historically conditioned to distrust each other. With the Thaksin imbroglio
playing out, the border is now back on high alert.

Ironically, another nadir in Cambodian-Thai relations occurred back in 2003
when Cambodian protesters — armed with false information that a Thai actress
had claimed Cambodia’s national treasure, the ancient city and temple
complex of Angkor Wat, as actually being Thai — burned down the Thai embassy
in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The incensed Thai Prime Minister at the
time None other than Hun Sen’s self-proclaimed “friend,” Thaksin

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