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High-level diplomacy

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Prime Minister Hun Sen presents fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with a medal for leadership yesterday at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh.

Criticism from Thai opposition

Hiigh-Level meetings between Thai and Cambodian officials in Phnom Penh continued yesterday despite reported criticism from opposition Thai MPs over Hun Sen’s warm welcome of fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai Prime Minister.

In a move that commentators believe will lead to a long-standing close relationship between the two countries, Thaksin met with the Council of Ministers yesterday before receiving an award from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Visuth Chainaroon, second deputy speaker of Thailand’s House of Representatives, also met with Nguon Nhel, Cambodia’s first vice-president of the National Assembly.

Thaksin was one of six political leaders from the region to receive the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International Leadership Award last night for what Prime Minister Hun Sen said were “contributions to national reconciliation and political peace and stability in the region”.

Thaksin’s award came on the five-year anniversary of the bloodless coup that removed him from power in 2006 following a series of corruption allegations involving companies linked to him and his family.

To mark the occasion, Red Shirt loyalists held a rally at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Sunday night. Police blocked off Ratchadamneon Avenue in central Bangkok to vehicle traffic and core leaders of the party addressed the supportive crowd.

Yesterday’s awards ceremony took place at the capital’s Peace Palace and followed a lecture by Thaksin to the Council of Ministers, during which he called on Thailand to work with donor countries to assist in the development of its neighbours. Across town, in the closed-door meeting between Nguon Nhel and Visuth Chainaroon at the Sofitel Hotel, both countries pledged their ongoing commitment to positive relations, said CPP lawmaker Chheang Von, who was present for the one-hour meeting.

“We want to cooperate with Thailand. We want things to go back to what they were like before 2008 when we started having problems,” he said. “Together we are hopeful that we will have better relations.”

Carlyle Thayer, a professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said the renewed positive relations between the two countries would endure.

“Nothing lasts forever, but for the next several years at the very least, I see relations remaining strong,” Thayer said.  

“As long as the Pheau Thai coalition has strength in the country [Thailand], Hun Sen will want to have good relations with it,” he added, noting that Cambodia’s premier had “bet his cards right and won” by siding with the Pheau Thai party. However, not everyone was so hopeful. According to the Bangkok Post, Thai former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said yesterday that Hun Sen’s meeting with Thaksin amounted to harbouring a fugitive.

“Thailand is apprehensive about Prime Minister Hun Sen, who held a reception for a fugitive instead of cooperating with Thai authorities by bringing that person back to face justice in his own country,” Kasit Piromya reportedly said.

But members of Cambodia’s opposition have expressed support for the renewed sense of diplomacy.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay welcomed improved relations but emphasised the need for Cambodia to protect its interests.

He also said that Thailand’s new administration was continuing to desire Cambodian land and that the only recourse to solving the border dispute was international intervention.

“The new Thai Prime Minister is still demanding Cambodian land in the area near Preah Vihear,” he said.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong was unavailable for comment last night.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING KRISTEN LYNCH

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